Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 6, 2018
Network Adapted by Lee Hall from the Paddy Chayefsky film. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld. Video design by Tal Yarden. Costume design by An DHuys. Sound and music by Eric Sleichim. Cast: Bryan Cranston, Tony Goldwyn, Tatiana Maslany, Joshua Boone, Alyssa Bresnahan, Ron Canada, Julian Elijah Martinez, Frank Wood, Nick Wyman, Barzin Akhavan, Jason Babinsky, Camila Canó-Flaviá, Eric Chayefsky, Gina Daniels, Nicholas Guest, Joe Paulik, Susannah Perkins, Victoria Sendra, Henry Stram, Bill Timoney, Joseph Varca, Nicole Villamil, and Jenna Yi.
What sticks in memory of the original movie is Peter Finch's Oscar-winning turn as Howard Beale, the sturdy anchor of an evening news program that is a regular feature of the fictional UBS TV network. Ratings and revenues are taking a nosedive, however, and the powers-that-be have decided to cut Beale loose and rethink their entire approach to the delivery of the news by making it an arm of the entertainment division. The parallels to today are unmistakable, and both van Hove and writer Lee Hall, who adapted Chayefsky's screenplay for the stage, make sure we don't miss the connection, both to the world of infotainment and to that of rage-fueled politics.
Now it is Bryan Cranston's turn to tackle Howard Beale, and he is, in a word, magnificent in the role that has already brought him a best actor Olivier Award for the London production of Network. We can only gaze in admiration as he transforms from a stuffed shirt news reader managed by a team of handlers who dress him, fix his makeup, and tell him where to look and what to say, to a latter-day mad monk whose manic rantings of long repressed rage make him the darling of the airwaves.
The first sign of Beale's metamorphosis occurs when he makes an on-air announcement about his pending forced retirement. He starts calmly enough, and then ends with a matter-of-fact statement that he intends to "blow my brains out right on this program a week from today." The newscast's director is so oblivious to the predictable routineness of Beale's reporting, he doesn't even notice until someone calls it to his attention. Of course, all hell breaks loose, until finally the huge screen that lines the back of the set lights up with this message: "There is a temporary technical problem. Do not adjust your set." It is a scene that is both funny and shocking at the same time, one that keeps us glued to the action to see how it will all play out.
And that's just the point. Because before you know it, word of Beale's actions has become a national news story, and ratings for UBS immediately skyrocket. Or course Beale has to go back on the air. And when he does, he is nutty as a fruitcake and the great instigator of the famous pre-Twitter hue and cry: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Even though the line itself has gone down in cinema history as one of the great movie quotes, the first time we hear Cranston proclaim it makes for a sublime theatrical moment.
This lack of direction within Beale's disintegrating mind opens him up to being manipulated by someone who very much has a purpose and the words to express them. That would be Arthur Jensen (Nick Wyman), the corporate chairman for whom UBS TV is just one cog in the vast conglomerate. For Beale, a meeting with Jensen is like a private audience with God (or, perhaps, Big Brother) and he is content to be fed the words he is to proclaim to his public.
If Mr. Hall, the screenplay's adapter, and director van Hove had stuck with this much, Network would have been far more solid work. Mr. Wyman's Jensen is a mysterious and powerful figure, a man with little interpersonal affect but who is possessed with a laser-sharp focus on his goal. Nothing and no one will stand in his way, a truth that becomes increasingly obvious as the play winds toward its conclusion.
Unfortunately, the part of Jensen is underwritten, and the production is out of balance as a result. Meanwhile, there's a tangential mini-plot about an affair between two members of the news division's team. Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn) is one of the old hands, disgusted over the turn over events, yet not so disgusted that he won't jump into bed with Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), a younger ambition-filled woman who wants to be in on the ground floor for the reshaping of the news division. Time that could better be spent on the central satire is frittered away following these two characters. For no reason at all, there is a gratuitous sex scene that takes place inside a restaurant that, seemingly for this purpose alone, is part of the set design. Since there are a few audience members sitting (and eating) in the restaurant when this scene takes place, I could only think of the scene from "When Harry Met Sally," in which Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm and Estelle Reiner drops the famous line: "I'll have what she's having."
Mr. Goldwyn, Ms. Maslany, and the rest of the cast do fine work, but their efforts generally are lost against the technical elements. Only Bryan Cranston's remarkably etched portrayal of Howard Beale rises to the top. No amount of visual and audio pyrotechnics can hold a candle to such a transfixing performance.