REVIEW: A prophet emerges in “Network” starring Bryan Cranston

REVIEW: A prophet emerges in “Network” starring Bryan Cranston

 
Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Photo Credit: Jan Versweyveld.

Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Photo Credit: Jan Versweyveld.

 

In screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s acclaimed 1976 film “Network”, prosaic nightly news anchorman Howard Beale transforms into an “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time” as an avatar for populist rage in reaction to the economic, moral, and spiritual malaise Jimmy Carter would later diagnose as gripping the nation.

In the thrilling stage adaptation that opened tonight at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre—following a sold-out run at London’s Royal National Theatre last year—it is Chayefsky, who died in 1981, who emerges as prophet, presciently presaging our contemporary crises of corporate media conglomeration and consumption, where entertainment trumps fact, and allegiance to democracy and country run second to profit.

Under the reliably scintillating direction of Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove (“The Damned”, “A View from the Bridge”), who tackles “West Side Story” next season, “Network” is a fable cum fictional origin story of our present-day media landscape, striking for the fact of its composition years before the founding of cable news networks, the rise of talk radio and social media, and the tawdry tabloid evolution of news as entertainment. 

As a genre, horror traffics in allegory.  The horror here, though, is literal, and no less chilling.

At the top of the play, an idle, hyperbolic threat of onscreen suicide by Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston, “All the Way”, “Breaking Bad”), borne of professional exasperation in the face of his coming termination following 25 years behind the newsdesk, becomes fodder for the creation of a new, sensationalist news program that adds immediate, rage-filled editorial comment alongside delivery of the news.  

An irresistible ratings leap leads a young, enterprising, and ambitious network executive named Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany, “Mary Page Marlowe”, “Orphan Black”) to develop “The Howard Beale Show”, much to the bewilderment of news division president Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn, “Scandal”, “Promises, Promises”), Beale’s contemporary and best friend.

Beale soon assumes a messianic personae as the network dissolves the line between its news division and entertainment programming in a quest for higher ratings and more profit, culminating in the coinage of Beale’s signature phrase: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”, a screed whose virtue and vice is its blanket appeal to ills experienced and animuses harbored by those who hear it.   

Beale self-righteously claims he cannot be bought, openly reflecting on the woe that would follow should the wrong people command the network’s microphone, then easily capitulates to the ideology of his corporate overlords, the most senior of which, Arthur Jensen (Nick Wyman), preaches supremacy of the global “college of corporations” as man’s true ordering principle.

A background plot of corporate power struggles amid consolidation featuring a bevy of underdeveloped side characters is more dispositive of its theme than important to follow the details of, and a lusty power-play romance between Christensen and the otherwise married Schumacher demonstrates one more tendril of Chayefsky’s parable of amorality.  Alyssa Breshnahan plays Louise, Schumacher’s jilted wife, and is ill-served by her melodramatic material.

Beale comes to decry the very system he leads and the dehumanization it encourages, urging his viewers to turn off the television and connect with one another as the only solution to society’s ills.  In case you’ve never seen the Oscar-winning film—I haven’t—I won’t spoil the ending, which is both shocking and easily understandable, if not expected.  We live in the age of the network, after all.

Mr. van Hove brings his signature style to this intense and intelligent production, masterfully employing live video camera work throughout that allows him to retain the authority of filmmaker together with the immediacy and communal complicity of theatre making. 

With Steadicam operators roaming the stage, their precisely tracked footage edited in real time and projected on a large screen centerstage and smaller screens throughout the set and auditorium, Mr. van Hove’s production offers a multimedia technical feat unlike any I’ve seen before on Broadway (video design by Tal Yarden), on par with his production of “The Damned” at the Park Avenue Armory last summer (read my review).  

 
Bryan Cranston and the cast of “Network”. Photo Credit: Jan Versweyveld.

Bryan Cranston and the cast of “Network”. Photo Credit: Jan Versweyveld.

 

While some theatregoers complain they don’t always know where to look, I quite enjoy the opportunity afforded by multiple vantage points.  Scenes occur simultaneously in the studio, its glass box control room, and an off-stage corridor stage right, and at a restaurant stage left (scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld), where a handful of audience members no doubt paid top dollar for dinner service (menu by former White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses) and ring-side seats.  They bear witness to the events unfolding, stand-ins for the mass of Americans powerless in the face of the information age.

In another van Hove trademark, one scene begins outside on 44th Street as Christensen and Schumacher walk-and-talk under the Belasco marquee, a Steadicam following through an alley and onto stage where they promptly have feverish sex, talk of TV ratings serving as Christensen’s aphrodisiac.

Lest Mr. van Hove be thought of only as a coolly technical director, as is so often the charge, the performances of his company radiate with heat and intensity, with none more compelling than that of Mr. Cranston, who gives a Tony Award-worthy performance as Beale.  Slick, slack-jawed, and mellifluous, his teary, rage-filled mental breakdown monologue, provided in extreme closeup, is both the backbone and fulcrum of the play.  There is a lack of obvious chemistry between Ms. Maslany and Mr. Goldwyn, but their romance is one of transaction between two icy figures, so it works.

In a turn of meta casting, it is apt that the three stars of this stage play all hail from great success on television, their ease in front of a camera helpful for Mr. van Hove’s technique.  Near the end of the play, Jensen excoriates Christensen’s narrow-minded affinity for television, admonishing that message triumphs over medium.  In Mr. van Hove’s production, though, I think it’s at least a draw.

A post-bows film reel destroys any remaining fragment of subtly about the piece with a message that says more about the audience viewing it (and its reaction) than the content of its subject matter.  I won’t spoil that, but you won’t miss it.  Nor should you miss “Network”, an easy highlight of the Broadway season.

Bottom Line: Ivo van Hove brings his signature style to an intense and intelligent stage production of Paddy Chayefsky’s prophetic 1976 film “Network”.  An easy highlight of the Broadway season, Bryan Cranston gives a Tony Award-worthy performance as news anchor Howard Beale’s descent into a rage-filled demagogue.  The message is the medium, and vice versa, in this technically brilliant and thrilling new drama. 

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Network
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
New York, NY  10036

Running time: 2 hours (no intermission)
Opening Night: December 6, 2018
Final Performance: March 17, 2019
Tickets

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