If satire is what closes on Saturday night, as George S. Kaufman famously said, how can one explain the roaring success of Broadway’s “Network,” smashing box office records at the Belasco Theatre even before opening? The movie from which it was adapted, with its Oscar-winning screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, dates back more than 40 years, after all, to a time when New York’s streets were famously mean and anchormen, not Instagram influencers, were major cultural figures.
The reasons for the popular success of the production, first seen at the National Theater in London, are several — including that ever-helpful “London-liked-it” imprimatur. There is also the eerie prescience Chayefsky demonstrated, both in foreseeing the blurring between news and entertainment, and in creating an anti-hero, the jaded newscaster-turned-latter-day prophet Howard Beale, whose star rises as he taps into the collective dissatisfaction of an angry populace. Do I need to point out whom in America today this bloviating television demagogue resembles, in style if not in spirit?
Perhaps the key factor drawing sellout crowds, in something of an irony given the material’s finger-wagging, TV-will-kill-you moral, is the man playing Beale, Bryan Cranston, from television’s “Breaking Bad.” He gives a ferocious, larger-than-life performance (literally, given the giant screen on which his life-weathered face often appears) in the role of Beale, whose on-air meltdown — culminating in the exhortation to his viewers to open their windows and rage that they are “mad as hell” and are not going to take it anymore — is one of the most famous sequences in 1970s film.
“Network” arrives on Broadway in the canny care of the innovative Dutch director Ivo van Hove. His productions of the Arthur Miller plays “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible” were among the finest revivals of the past decade, but van Hove has a busy sideline in adapting films for the stage — a notoriously tricky business. (New York recently hosted his version of “The Damned,” and London will soon see his “All About Eve.”) “Network” employs with sneaky smarts all van Hove’s trademarked bag of tricks: Camera operators prowl the staging, filming the action live from various perspectives, with the video projected on that giant screen at the back of the stage. At one side of the stage is a chic-looking Plexiglas chamber, from which the producers and staff coordinate the nightly telecasts. At the other side, select audience members sit sipping drinks at a bar and cocktail tables as the action flows in front of them.
In fact, van Hove’s hyperactive direction, with that giant screen drawing focus as it splinters into many smaller screens showing ’70s-era commercials, may be the ideal way of papering over the flaws in Chayefsky’s writing, namely his tendency to use his characters as megaphones to spout windy speeches, and preach about the toxins destroying our souls: television, commercialism, the increasing power of corporations, the endless hunger for entertainment, etc.
Like Arthur Miller, Chayefsky was a moralist bent on analyzing cultural and political ills. This he did with table-thumping fervor in “Network,” which takes primary aim at the boobs (that’s us) who had rented all the space in their minds, souls and hearts to the commercial forces of network television. (In her long takedown of the movie, headlined “Hot Air,” Pauline Kael wrote that “the entire picture is Chayefsky sticking his head out the window and yelling,” and she had a point.) By filling the Belasco stage with diversions (OMG, remember that Burger King commercial?), van Hove manages to soften the rather blunt blows of Chayefsky at his most pontifical.
Still, Chayefsky’s voice has a sharper thrust during his characters’ harangues than it does while plotting the more mundane matters of their romantic relationships. When “Network” trains its focus on the burgeoning affair between Beale’s great friend and defender, the news producer Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn), and the hard-charging entertainment producer Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), and its shattering impact on Max’s marriage to Louise (Alyssa Bresnahan), the production’s racing pulse tends to slow. It’s not the fault of the actors that they cannot bring much animation to these mostly archetypal figures: Max the Man in the Throes of a Midlife Crisis; Diana the Ambitious Seductress; Louise the Long-Suffering Helpmate abandoned after decades of devotion.
Goldwyn is considerably less “craggy,” as his character described himself, than William Holden in the movie, and he delivers a performance that’s proficient but rather bland. And Maslany cannot compete with the Oscar-winning performance of Faye Dunaway as Diana. (Who could?) Caroming around the screen, talking herself into an orgasm about ratings and shares, Dunaway’s Diana was like a coked-up model bouncing off the walls at Studio 54. Maslany (an Emmy winner for “Orphan Black”) plays the character in an effective but more coolly calculating style.
In any case it is Cranston’s Beale who, even more than Peter Finch in the movie (who won a rare posthumous Oscar for his performance), dominates the production. Beale’s existential boredom with his life seems to be etched on Cranston’s face, so when he blandly announces he plans to kill himself on television, it hardly seems surprising. And as Beale gradually becomes the raging prophet denouncing the ills of the world, Cranston’s increasing derangement is both galvanizing and frightening; it’s a sensational performance — and it has to be to keep us attuned to Beale’s long arias-cum-sermons. (Not to mention the speech from the corporate overlord Arthur Jensen, played with graven hauteur by Nick Wyman, who lectures Beale thus: “There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and AT&T and General Motors….”)
The adaptation by Lee Hall (“War Horse” and “Billy Elliot”) wisely discards some of the more absurdist feints of the movie: the “Mao Tse Tung Hour” that Diana cooked up in league with an anarchist terrorist group (although he does include a lecture from a terrorist about how “we have been lied to by generations of politicians” and “basic civil liberties are at threat”), and the addition of a soothsayer to Beale’s nightly broadcasts as they morph from newscasts into pandering audience-bait.
This drains some of the satirical edge from the material, but it’s probably a smart trade-off, as it underscores the uncanny crystal-ball-gazing that makes much of Chayefsky’s observations about American cultural trends still salient today – right down to a nigh-spooky reference to the sway that Saudi Arabian money holds over American business. A spray of what look like Facebook live videos plasters the screens onstage at one point, pointing to the unspoken update of Chayefsky’s message: the “boob tube” has been replaced by social media as the chief mechanical hypnotic supposedly turning us all into mindless automatons today.
Describing “Network” 40-years-on sometimes feels like unpacking a nesting doll of ironies. But the primary one may be that what most in the audience are likely to be “mad as hell” about is the presence in the White House of, well, a ranting rabble-rouser on the Beale model. During the play, we are put in the disorienting position of cheering on the anti-establishment jeremiads of a Beale, a man whose closest contemporary analogue most Broadway theatergoers probably despise.
“Network” opened on Dec. 6, 2018 at the Belasco Theatre.
Creative: Adapted by Lee Hall; Based on the film by Paddy Chayefsky; Music by Eric Sleichim; Directed by Ivo van Hove.
Producers: David Binder, The National Theatre, Patrick Myles, David Luff, Ros Povey, Lee Menzies, Annapurna, Blanshay-Yonover, CatWenJam Productions, Patrick Catullo, Delman-Whitney, Diana DiMenna, Falkenstein-Grant, Hagemann Rosenthal Associates, GHF Productions, The John Gore Organization, Harris Rubin Productions, Sharon Karmazin, Koenigsberg-Fan, Kors Le Pere Theatricals, Alexander ‘Sandy’ Marshall, Stephanie McClelland, David Mirvish, Moellenberg-Hornos, R.H.M.-Jonathan Reinis, Catherine Schreiber, Ken Schur, Jayne Sherman, Cynthia Stroum, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Zeilinger Productions and The Shubert Organization; Produced in association with Dean Stolber; Producer NT America: Franki De La Vega.
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Tony Goldwyn, Tatiana Maslany, Joshua Boone, Alyssa Bresnahan, Rob Canada, Julian Elijah Martinez, Frank Wood, Nick Wyman, Brazin 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, Jeena Yi.