Network adapted by Lee Hall based on Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay
At the Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street
BS Rating: A-
Show-Score Rating: 90
“Network,” at the Belasco Theater, is based on the famous (dare I say infamous) 1976 film. However Lee Hall’s faithful but pointed adaptation and Ivo Van Howe’s elaborate electronic production is definitely a work for a 2018 audience. It’s tough to disassociate this multimedia extravaganza from the original movie. They both clearly share one thing in common: the vision of Patty Chayefsky. There is much talk about the play’s central character as “a prophet.” The real prophet is Mr. Chayefsky. In the mid-1970s he saw where our media and, more generally, corporate amalgamation were going. Over forty years later, his vision has become our reality.
Initially, I was put off by the extremely contemporary media used in this production — while the adaptation maintains the original period, the television equipment and the complex use of multimedia is very 2018. But, as the play progressed, that dichotomy became a central part of this production’s message. We are living out Chayefsky’s predictions — a news media that is so personality-based that those personalities can tell us the news as they want to see it, not necessarily based on any objective journalistic ethics. Those audience members who expected a timely allegorical commentary from the very disappointing production of “1984” last year will discover in Mr. Chayefsky’s 1976 vision a much more accurate reflection of the current threat that global corporate mergers pose to democracy — think who owns CBS or ABC and what is the risk of mergers like Time-Warner with Charter Communications or Sinclair Broadcasting’s expansions.
Ivo Van Howe, whose directing style previously has seemed to lean toward minimalism, uses the anachronisms of 2018 technology in a play set in the time of Gerald Ford to make this production address the time of Donald Trump. However, until a post-curtain call slide show of past presidents, Mr. Van Howe keeps the play focused on the effect of personality-based news coverage and the threat of global capitalism with no overt references to our current morass.
As expected, Bryan Cranston is phenomenal as the mentally unbalanced Howard Beale. In the space of two hours, he portrays a reasonable man losing his touch with reality just as his faithful and enthusiastic fans are seeing him as their only source for reality (sound familiar?). Cranston is an actor who seems to have a special talent for portraying charismatic figures, a few seasons ago as LBJ and now as the ultimate blind-leading-the-blind newscaster.
Appropriately, the rest of the very good cast are overshadowed by Mr. Cranston’s persona. Tony Goldwyn as Beale’s producer, Max Schumacher, provides a convincing man of ethics caught in the swirl of changes. Tatiana Maslany embodies the producer who sees her only function as raising ratings to generate more advertising money. Unfortunately, the subplot of her romantic affair with Max requires such a different tone from the production’s media saturation that their attraction to each other is less than believable and their romance is more of a distraction in the play than an added dimension. Alyssa Bresnahan, as Max’s wife, suffers a similar fate, although both actors performances are perfectly credible.
Mr. Von Howe has cast two African American actors as the chief corporate executives, one a remnant of the past management that never saw news as a money-making endeavor, the other a disciple of the new generation that insists that news become a cash-cow. While we would expect to see high-level black executives in a play set in 2018, their presence in a 1976 setting is another one of those anachronistic dichotomies that forces us to see this production as timely and prophetic. Both Ron Canada as the old-timer and Joshua Boone as the brash voice of the future are perfect representations of our times.
When the play reaches the pinnacle portrayal of Beale’s nightly campaign rally posing as news, the current New York audiences willfully join in shouting Mr. Chayefsky’s most memorable line: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” And mad they are. Unfortunately (spoiler alert), an act of violence puts an end to the chaos caused by Howard Beale’s rantings — or does it? We see the public’s willingness to give themselves over to distortions of reality when reality itself is distorted or ignored. “Network” does not give us much guidance for getting out of our current situation, but it is an insightful (and entertaining) portrait of the problem.