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Theater review by Adam Feldman
Bryan Cranston has a hell of a mad scene in the middle of Network. It’s the most famous sequence in the 1976 film from which Lee Hall's play has been adapted, and it gets pride of place in the Broadway production directed and then directed some more by the busy Ivo van Hove. Cranston portrays Howard Beale, a veteran anchorman who has been fired by his company, UBS (get it?), and has responded with a nervous breakdown on live TV, threatening to kill himself and rejecting the “bullshit” (got it) that passes for news. Now, having wandered into the studio from the street in his pajamas, he calls on his viewers to rise up, scream out and repeat after him: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Van Hove draws out the scene, lingering on Cranston—via live-video closeups that the audience sees on screens throughout the Belasco Theatre—as he struggles through a fog of messianic psychosis. It’s riveting stuff, because Cranston is an extraordinary actor, and also because, for an extended moment in this tech blitz of a show, there appears to be a human being onstage.
Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay was a satire of the values of the television age, but humor has never been Van Hove’s strength, and this Network has virtually none of it. The show presents Beale’s story with a deep sense of portent and weight, and leaves little oxygen for anything else. Even as the show, by design, bombards us with distractions—the set and lighting are by Jan Versweyveld, the sound by Eric Sleichim, the video by Tal Yarden—the play itself zeroes in on Beale. Major scenes and subplots from the film have been sliced off like so much fat from a pricey filet (including the movie’s funniest subplot, about a Marxist terrorist group). The other main characters, news producer Max (Tony Goldwyn) and programming executive Diana (Tatiana Maslany), have been leached of personality, the better to facilitate the cult of Beale’s. In its rush to the finish line, the show even sacrifices basic storytelling.
With its continual sensory overload and its darkly vague intimations about populism and corporate power, this Network certainly looks cool. But it’s beyond cool: It’s icy. We seem intended to nod our heads and think about how prescient it all was—the mob appeal of anger, a mention of Saudi Arabia—but then to think no more. 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.
Belasco Theatre (Broadway). By Lee Hall. Directed by Ivo van Hove. With Bryan Cranston, Tantiana Maslany, Tony Goldwyn. Through Mar 17.