Cranston. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
By Fern Siegel
the past is prologue.
especially true when it comes to the power of media and technology. It can be a
force for good or evil, as Howard Beale, the United Broadcasting System’s TV
anchor, makes clear in the riveting drama Network, now at the Belasco
on the 1976 movie written by Paddy Chayefsky, who won an Oscar for his
screenplay, the theatrical incarnation is tighter and more pointed. Thank Bryan
Cranston; his Beale is a mesmerizing portrait of a soul in torment. With his
craggy face and go-for-broke demeanor, Cranston plays Beale as a man propelled
by an inner truth, yet vulnerable to manipulation.
famed “mad as hell” mantra works on two levels: an evocation of anger — now a
stalwart on cable TV — and “madness.” That is, a mental state in which any
attempt at conformity has been discarded. In his slick suit and anchorman
delivery, he condemns corporate greed and moral bankruptcy, while promoting
simple decency. Truth that offends the established order can often be dismissed
as mad or suspect. In a capitalist society, Network underscores, the
only eternal value is monetary.
tough part is deciding what is real and what is manufactured.
huge TV screen dominates the stage’s back wall, interspersed with images of the
principles — a camera constantly follows them — and vivid ’70s commercials. Jan
Versweyveld’s set and lighting design and Tal Yarden’s videos push the action
to the breaking point.
Beale’s doomsday prophet isn’t crying into the wilderness. He’s looking
straight into the camera and a rapt audience. And he will be noticed and
sustained — provided he proves profitable. Which is why Lee Hall’s adaption of
the famed film ratchets up a larger truth: The medium isn’t the message. The
message is the message. “TV is the hardware,” Beale explains. “What matters is
focused than its source material, which expanded the personal stories and TV
feature pitches, the Broadway play zeros in on the excesses and dangers of
fevered communications. It’s the ideas that count, a slick understanding that
platform – think social media – may exponentially quicken delivery, but the
nature of the missive – humane or toxic – will have the most impact.
Facebook’s potency in the 2016 election, coupled with the reach and influence
of TV hosts, from Stephen Colbert to Sean Hannity, it’s a viable thesis. And
director Ivo Van Hove’s fast-paced, exciting execution drives that point home.
Network might open in 1975
with coverage of Patty Hearst, but it’s not enough to sustain Beale, who’s just
been fired by best friend and news head Max (Tony Goldwyn). Beale won’t go
gentle into that good night; he opts to rage against the dying of the light,
much to the delight of ruthless producer Diane (Tatiana Maslany), who convinces
her corporate overlords that Beale’s diatribes spell big ratings and ad
cares what he says, as long as the network’s finances go from red to black!
Maslany and Julian Elijah Martinez Photo: Jan Versweyveld
might warn against “the destructive power of absolute beliefs” — but it’s such
absolutism that fuels action, positive and negative. Of course, what Chayefsky
saw as a dark satire has morphed into mainstream media, which should scare
anyone who cares about the greater good and individual worth.
years later, Network doubles as prescient commentary, not a hopeful
sermon on avoiding pitfalls. Yet it’s a perfect vehicle for theater, given Cranston’s stunning performance. He took home a Tony as LBJ in All The Way; Network gives him another shot at the prestigious Best Actor category.
an era of split-second Internet messaging, Network seems more akin — and
terrifying — to our age than when it debuted.
Network, Belasco Theater,
111 West 44 Street, New York, NY Running time: 115 minutes, no intermission.