New York City Theater
Not even a plexiglass control booth, a giant TV screen or patrons eating and drinking on stage can compete with Bryan Cranston’s galvanizing performance in “Network.” The effect of director Ivo van Hove’s robust production of the smash 1976 movie squeezes the film into a theatrical format, replete with Jan Versweyveld’s scenic and lighting designs, Tal Yarden’s video design and a 23-member cast. Missing are heart, humor and our ability to care.
Not that the theme is dated. We’re deeper into lies-vs.-truth and unlimited greed as much as we ever were. As originally written by a prescient Paddy Chayevsky (and adapted by Lee Hall), this stinging satiric screed against the excesses of capitalism is still valid as is the hypocrisy that drives the work to its tragic conclusion. More, we’re still subject to the ravings of messianic con men. It’s the ultimate American trope: anything for a buck, with television as the great manipulator.
Paradoxically, that’s part of the problem with the current adaptation: We are so used to chicanery that one more instance doesn’t have much of an impact. Indeed, when audience members are involved, they greet interactions with the actors with embarrassed smiles.
Howard Beale (Cranston), fed up with phoniness, threatens to kill himself on his live UBS network program. Horrified bosses fire him from his position as anchor for the nightly news. But he requests one more chance. It’s here that he bellows the famous line, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” a chant the audience is encouraged to repeat.
Beale becomes a national star, his program watched by millions; his network, which had been down, has risen to the top of the heap. But his fall from grace is as spectacular as his ascent. By not following the dictates of the TV station’s owners -- they don’t care about integrity – he faces a tragic ending.
Along the way, we meet the ambitious, crass Diana (Tatiana Maslany) who seduces Max (Tony Goldwyn), the married head of the news division, to the expected chagrin of his wife Louise (Alyssa Bresnahan). None rival the film performances. But execs portrayed by Joshua Boone, Frank Wood and Nick Wyman practically define “sleazy.”
It’s Cranston who fires up the evening. Little things: his wave-away of makeup people when he’s frustrated vs. his strutting good manners when he’s not. The way he flirts with the audience, thrilling them with his presence. His truly frightening breakdown. As an “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our times” and lamenting “the demented slaughterhouse of the world we live in,” Cranston never loses the seductive charm that makes his mad, egomaniacal character all the more believable and visceral.
Yet, time has caught up with this “Network.” Told that democracy is dying, that we are born and live in terrors has added sadness and pity. Even the optimistic “God is in your selves” seems just wishful. The kicker comes in a post-curtain call filmed sequence of recent presidents’ taking the oath of office. Obama gets cheers from the audience; Trump gets boos.
We’ve been warned.
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 13, 2018