Bryan Cranston and the cast of ‘Network.’ (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Overwhelmed by how bad things are? Feeling incapable of doing anything about taxes, jobs, guns, climate change, food, war, housing, financial and political corruption, terrorism, the defense budget, the Russians, racism, Trump, . . . ? If so, I suggest tuning in at the Belasco Theatre to Ivo Van Hove’s blisteringly relevant production of Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film satire of that name. Before long, you’ll be shouting along with many others when disenchanted TV newscaster Howard Beale begins chanting, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
I say “tuning in” advisedly, as controversial Dutch director Van Hove, who recently used TV cameras so extensively in The Damned, does so again in this production, which originated with Britain’s National Theatre. It’s far more suitable in the context of Network’s fast-paced, visceral attack on the role money plays in TV broadcasting and the tube’s power to shape our thinking.
Although Network is set in the period of Chayefsky’s original, it doesn’t take much effort to view its themes as exponentially more pertinent now because of the Internet, to note the similarity of its issues to today’s, or to recognize its relation to the frustrations instigated by our media-obsessed president.
Van Hove’s usual set and lighting designer, Jan Versweyveld, has created a scenic world loosely suggesting the inside of a television news studio, with rows of audience members watching from the wings. Everything is directed so the live action can be picked up by roving camera operators (using current, not period, equipment), whose images are projected on one huge screen and several smaller ones.
The magnified images are obviously more eye-grabbing than what they replicate; often, we have to search the stage to see where the action is coming from. There’s even a scene performed outside the Belasco itself. Our vision is continuously split between what’s live and what’s digital. At times, we’re even fooled by prerecorded images.
Further, the emphasis on TV’s commercialism has led video designer Tal Yarden to back much of the drama with multiple images of both actual events — like Ali fighting Frazier — and vintage commercials. This makes its point at the price of distracting from the narrative.
Nonetheless, within the controlled chaos of its presentation, Network hues closely to Chayefsky’s story. And that, of course, concerns what happens after Howard Beale — the role that brought Peter Finch an Oscar and is here interpreted with crackling intensity and awesome authority by the formidable Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad, All the Way) — announces during his show that he intends to blow his brains out on the air.
This shocking declaration, coming after we learn that the network’s news division’s low ratings threaten its existence, turns out to have huge ratings advantages. These are duly noted by the ambitious programmer Diana Christenson (Tatiana Maslany, notably lacking Faye Dunaway’s perfection in this Oscar-earning role).
What follows — especially the parts exploring the power of global corporatism, as represented by the shadowy Arthur Jensen (a chilling Nick Wyman) — is too complex to recount here. It offers a devastating critique of the lengths to which the media will go in search of eyeballs, as revealed in so much subsequent “reality TV,” and, of course, social media.
There’s also the romance between the hit-at-any-moral-cost Diana and Beale’s morally upright producer, Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn, lacking William Holden’s bottomless gravitas), who leaves his wife (Alyssa Bresnahan, excellent) of 25 years for her. This material, diminished from its screen significance, exposes the flaws in Max’s integrity but its existence now seems more superfluous than integral.
The chief focus shifts to Beale’s latter-day ascent to stardom as a mad prophet-like personality who gets people to stick their heads out the window — replaced by the Belasco audience, incited by a TV warm-up man — and shout the “mad as hell” mantra. If you know the film, you know that Beale is doomed to become the only newscaster to suffer a tragic fate “because of bad ratings.”
Network is crowded with ideas (including a final diatribe about “the destructive powers of absolute belief”), emotions, humor, and gimmickry. It runs for two uninterrupted hours but glues you to your seat. And, while Bryan Cranston’s Howard Beale may not blow his brains out, he’s sure to blow your mind.
111 W. 44th St., NYC
Through April 28
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.