Network is a big show with a big cast. It arrived from London with enthusiastic notices and critical acclaim. From the get-go, director Ivo van Hove hits the audience with shock-and-awe: video noise and urgent countdowns.
Center stage, there is an anchor desk sporting the network logo UBS. A glassed-in control room fills out stage right, with a make up room behind. Stage left is a restaurant set.
Everywhere there are cameras, some on wheels, others, are stedi-cams in the hands of techs, stalking the action and feeding video to television screens that fill out every possible space. The screens pound out images. Van Hove is relentless in his use of video effects.
(I’d argue that the close camera work focused on Bryan Cranston’s face in emotional situations offers a huge challenge and change. Acting on a stage is different from acting to a camera; how much emotion is summoned to the face, how much can one project, how broad or subtle can you be? The stedi-cams change that basic contract.)
Howard Beale (Cranston) has been anchoring the news with the fourth network, UBS, for decades. He’s learned he’s to be fired because of low ratings. He tells the audience that he intends to kill himself on live television in one week. That sets the plot in motion, as it did in Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 screenplay for the satirical film "Network". On the Belasco Theatre stage, Lee Hall’s adaptation, combined with Cranston’s high-wire acting, reboot an already powerhouse play.
In 1976, the notion that a fourth network might arise and use reality programming and faux news, to capitalize on the growing anger in the land, was a droll conceit. Forty years later what was satire is on the dial.
The production team captured the electricity of “Thirty seconds to air — cue the announcer, role the open, five, four, three, —, —." Still, no matter how intense the effects are — and in this production they are a startling commingling of then and now — it still comes down to the performance. Cranston remakes Beale from the inside out.
Cranston’s Beale starts suicidal, and, in acting terms, he never gets off that ledge. He more than takes risks; he is so naked sometimes you want to look away. Yet, you are compelled to go where he takes you. In the film, Peter Finch’s Beale was certainly compelling in his rage; Cranston’s Beale is tender and intimate; then he’s edgy; and occasionally you are not at all sure if he’s kidding. He is “mad as hell” to be sure, but his rages give way to a sweetness.
The downside of Cranston’s precise and emotive performance is that it casts the rest into shadow.
Tony Goldwyn’s Max Schumacher is most genuine in his early exchanges with Cranston. That said, he is memorable, if non-verbal, in a remarkably well-executed sex scene with Tatiana Maslany in the Diana Christiansen role. She was astonishing!
Goldwyn brings some intensity to the scene with Alyssa Bresnahan, who plays his wife, Louise, where he tells her about his affair. In this pas de deux, Bresnahan is rich in misery and rage and finally, resignation. Goldwyn actually seems to get physically smaller as her sense of betrayal washes over him. The scene is perfectly written and perfectly delivered.
(This reviewer has worked in broadcast news for decades and will admit that newsies are a cranky bunch when it comes to detail—inclined to tell you how it really was versus how you are portraying it.)
They got so much right. And what they didn’t get period perfect proved winning nevertheless. For example, the hand held stedi-cams they used had not yet been invented in the 70s but the effects they produced more than warranted the use of them. Digital countdowns came later and so on. One question the production raised for me was the casting. Three network executives here were men of color and lots of the folks filling well-paid union tech jobs were women. That did not happen in the 1970s. This is a fact check, not a judgement.
My measure of how good a show is, is would I go see it again. I would. I don’t know how Cranston gets into that state 8 shows a week.
(Photo by Jan Versweyveld)
What the popular press says...
"For your sins, Bryan Cranston is all but flaying the skin off his body, night after night at the Belasco Theater. It is a demanding undertaking, both painful and rigorously skilled. And if you’re a glutton for great, high-risk acting, you owe Mr. Cranston the courtesy — and yourself the thrill — of watching his self-immolation in Network."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Network isn’t galvanizing, it’s numbing: emptily flashy in its condemnation of empty flash, inhuman in its wan defense of humanity. It has a superb TV star and a killer catch phrase, but behind the sound and fury is only a shadow of significance."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” is one of my favorite films. The great 1976 satire was so eerily prescient about the blurred line between television news and entertainment. Acclaimed stage director Ivo Van Hove’s exhilarating production is a laudable effort to revisit Chayevsky’s chilling prophecy, but in this version, the towering presence of Bryan Cranston delivering a monumental performance upstages the medium and the message."
Roma Torre for NY1
"What remains clear, however, is that the writer was definitely onto something, and while his taste for windy oration can grate, his caustic immorality tale proves a trenchant fit for the stage in this boldly inventive adaptation from director Ivo van Hove and playwright Lee Hall. That's especially true with the volcanic Bryan Cranston giving a gut-wrenching performance in the pivotal role of Howard Beale."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"Funny how times haven’t changed. Chayefsky’s diatribe, which played as satire almost a half-century ago, takes on fresh fury in a sizzling stage production, directed by Ivo van Hove, that feels less satiric but more urgent — and frightening — in today’s times. Adaptations have been made to the original screenplay by Lee Hall, but the sense of immediacy is palpable."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...