When does London’s National Theatre production of Network, opening tonight at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway, really hit its meaningful stride? When do you really feel you are feasting on the meat and bones of the play, adapted by Lee Hall from the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky movie script that won the Oscar for Best Screenplay?
Mostly when Bryan Cranston’s beautifully, near-perfectly-performed newscaster-turned-furious-prophet Howard Beale is speaking simply, directly, and clearly to the audience, without any of the cameras wheeling around the stage, without any of the commercials and stage action playing on the massive screen at the back of the stage, and without any of the subsidiary action of a TV control room plonked on the left of the stage.
Network as a stage play works best when it’s as simple as Peter Finch speaking into the camera as in the Sidney Lumet-directed movie, although it must be fun to watch the action while sitting and eating on the stage, as some of the audience are able to do and have Cranston lecture them as they nervously sip wine.
Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” speech is so well executed on stage because Cranston leads up to its iconic crescendo by plotting the right path through the before-foothills and after-cascade.
He begins as paternalistic therapist before turning open-your-windows rabble-rouser. “It’s like everything’s going crazy,” he tells the TV audience. “So we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house and slowly the world we live in gets smaller and all we ask is, please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my hair dryer and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone. Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad.”
Beale’s decline, transformation, fall, re-ascension, and second fall is a satirical parable of media trends and cultural change, and Cranston delivers a performance so richly realized that you see only character, rather than actor-inhabiting-character.
Cranston’s performance is a wonder that supersedes all the gussying-up around it. You believe him as the anchor of a nightly news program, you believe him as the unpredictable diva who threatens to commit suicide on live TV (the original Network was written after the notorious on-air suicide of Christine Chubbock), you believe his gallows humor about that being a great ratings-getter, you believe him when he appears looking like a vulnerable hobo and sounding like an almost-biblical harbinger of doom.
And then, transformed again, you believe him as the sharp-suited cultural truth-teller, calmly telling his viewers about the corrupting webs of corporate power his own TV network, CCA, is enmeshed in with shadowy Arab-based oil money at its heart.
The satire of Network is that the viewing audience loves Beale’s outbursts more than the news he used to deliver; his bosses Frank Hackett (Joshua Boone) and Harry Hunter (Julian Elijah Martinez) fall in line behind Diana’s plans to make him into a glitzy star.
For all of Cranston’s perfectly modulated clarity and confusion as Beale, the production’s director Ivo van Hove likes to pack his stages with diversions and directorial trickery, and skew the audio of these surrounds too.
Maybe it is intended as a deliberate visual trick, but you may find yourself watching Cranston-as-Beale being filmed and projected on to the big screen, when Cranston-as-Beale is also right there on stage. The corrupting allure, familiarity, and illusionary truth of the TV screen, which Network itself interrogates, plays with us as the Belasco audience.
When you take your seats in the theater, there is the countdown clock to the start of the play, and the start of Beale’s newscast. Get ready for suddenly descending lights, make-up and hair, and then… the news. One person may be talking, but your ears also strain for the muttering of others, or the thrumming of a soundtrack. His productions are palimpsests of sensation.
An early scene features Beale and his immediate boss Max Schumacher (an urbane Tony Goldwyn) having drinks over which Max must let his friend know he is losing his job. The jazz playing within the supposed bar at this point is loud, too loud, for us to hear the men’s conversation. There is a fight on set, perfectly choreographed by Thomas Schall, and fought hopelessly by men who don’t fight. Howard and Max are not sanctimonious naysayers for news-times gone by, but they are endangered species.
This mischievous layering of voice and environment can look and sound stunning in an arena like the Armory, or on a simple, stark stage, but at the traditionally Broadway-proportioned Belasco Theater, the visual flurries by Jan Versweyveld are distracting rather than coalescing and meaningful.
Even more confusingly, while Network keeps the news stories and footage and advertisements from the era, its cast, cameras, newsroom design, and TV graphics are very much from 2018.
Perhaps there is an implicit message in that—the themes of Network 40-plus years ago are very much of the themes of today, with the frenetic mashing of events, opinion, bias, and polemic on Fox News (and less so on CNN and MSNBC), but on stage this curious clashing means we’re in constant era mash-up.
This reaches its puzzling peak at the end of the production, which features the swearings-in of all American presidents since Network was made; if you want to boo Trump on your Broadway night out, this is the show for you, but the exercise seemed both bizarre and heavy-handed.
Blurring the eras on stage feels unnecessary. What the relentless advertising shows is that TV news, even at its most august, is still a sideline to the main event: selling stuff. Whatever the news on Patty Hearst’s encounter with the Symbionese Liberation Army, toothpaste and Coca-Cola need to be sold hard.
Where TV news, and TV in general, is going is embodied by producer Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany).
The script, and the years since 1975 when it comes to female representation, are not kind to Diana. She is the leading female character in the play, the only other of any significance being Max’s wife, Louise (Alyssa Bresnahan).
They are simply drawn poles-apart female archetypes: Diana, the bitch (work-crazed, success-focused, whose distinguishing and unexplained and unexplored characteristics are shrewishness and lack of empathy), and Louise, the wronged wife, whose big speech is a plea to be seen. Both actors try to give their characters more than the simple line-drawings the script provides.
“Don’t you see?” Diana says of Beale. “The American people want someone to articulate their rage for them.”
But then, what to do with that rage except express it? Perhaps that is what we are living through now. Beale more than obliges: “Yesterday I announced on this program that I would commit public suicide, admittedly an act of madness. Well, tonight I wanted to respectfully explain what happened… I just ran out of bullshit,” he tells the TV audience.
Beale's bonkers new role means he acquires a warm-up guy (Barzin Akhavan) to gee us, the theater audience, as a home audience should also be gee’d up. Again, the point is well made: TV news is now entertainment, its presenters delirious ringmasters rather than sober purveyors of objectivity.
But the discomfiting ruse is a telling one: Of course, you don’t want to clap along to Howard Beale, now a not-journalist-turned-searing-mentally-ill prophet, but you are being asked to, and in and of itself that is a comment on today’s news-as-showbusiness, with objectivity traded for polemic and personality.
The best elements of Versweyveld’s stage design turn out to be the simplest, like the platform at the front of the stage on which Cranston stands and then sits to address the audience, and the cantilever at the top of the stage from which, god-like, Arthur Jensen (Nick Wyman), the head of the network, appears to inform Beale, that “There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and AT&T and Ford and General Electric, Union Carbide, Exxon.”
Those corporations together will, says Jensen, provide everything for workers, viewers and consumers (who are one and the same): employment, leisure, and tranquilized calm in their flickering tubes at home when needed.
The design here, to suddenly create an all-white Valhalla for the deity Jensen, is a perfect visual metaphor. Hove and Versweyveld also take Max and Diana out for an intense discussion about the state of their adulterous relationship on to the real-life streets of New York, which is filmed and beamed on to the big screen.
Live or not, random New York pedestrians behave as perfectly as random New York pedestrians should: impatient, quizzical, camera-ready, and not impressed.
There is one final glorious visual trick that confirms van Hove and Versweyveld as superior stage magicians—even if, with Network, their box of tricks feels a little overstuffed. Bryan Cranston provides all the magic this production needs.
Network is at the Belasco Theatre, NYC; booking to Mar. 17, 2019.