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Theatre in Review: Network (Belasco Theatre)

Bryan Cranston and the cast. Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

Network, Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 cinematic jeremiad about the fallen state of television news, warned audiences that the media was being destroyed by slick, soulless technology and audience-pandering. Such accusations feel especially apropos at the Belasco Theatre, where Network, which has been adapted to the stage by Lee Hall, generates a video-and-sound show that, too often, obscures the people onstage, never mind the ideas of the script; as a result, it may take a while to discover that, with one exception, the production is neither well-cast nor particularly well-directed. And its supposed relevance to today's scene is likely to be a matter of debate.

The director, Ivo van Hove, works almost exclusively with canonical plays or adaptations from film, bending them to his own purposes; last summer, his version of Luchino Visconti's The Damned -- a difficult, problematic late-career work -- swept away its excessive froufrou to reveal the unpleasantly gripping drama at its core. One can see why van Hove might have been attracted to Network (which, as directed by Sidney Lumet, won four Oscars), in which the eminent news anchor Howard Beale, having been fired, announces his intention to commit suicide on the air, then parlays his notoriety into an entirely new role as professional prophet of doom, playing like a violin the public's dissatisfaction with modern life; at the Belasco, I lost track of the times we in the audience were encouraged to shout out the film's famous tag line: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Fair enough: The line carries chilling echoes of the Tea Party, the Gilet Jaunes, and anyone plumping for Brexit; some have commented that Network, written forty-three years ago, seems to predict the spectacle of Donald Trump leading chants of "Lock her up!" even as half of his associates are carted off to the hoosegow. Indeed, one wonders what the late Chayefsky would have made of the blow-dried coiffures on Fox News smoothly assuring their addled viewers that the Robert Mueller investigation is a witch hunt perpetrated by Washington elites -- or the Trilateral Commission, or aliens from outer space. But it's equally true that by putting a certified madman and his mood swings at the center of the action, Network misses the point. Today's television news is pernicious because it pretends to be sweetly reasonable -- as in Fox's hilariously disingenuous claim to being "fair and balanced" -- featuring an army of well-dressed clones who whisper in viewers' ears that black is white, day is night, and Kellyanne Conway is a vessel of truth. Howard Beale's unhinged on-air antics are, in fact, closer to the excesses of The Jerry Springer Show -- but we already have a theatre piece about that.

In any case, van Hove's take on Network is dispiritingly cluttered. In Jan Versweyveld's scenic design, the stage of the Belasco is top-heavy with furnishings and lumbered with technology. Since much of the action takes place in a television studio, the entire stage-right area is taken up with a glass box containing the broadcast's control room. Stage left features an actual restaurant where premium-paying patrons can be observed noshing as they watch the play. (This is surely the most peculiar form of dinner theatre ever conceived.) Upstage is a massive video screen on which designer Tal Yarden delivers a nonstop collage of vintage television broadcasts and commercials, alternating with live IMAG. If you're a boomer, the images are so evocative that they constantly steal focus: I missed a crucial line thanks to Mr. Whipple hawking Charmin. Even more oddly, a number of scenes are played offstage and transmitted to the video screen. (The actors are heavily miked throughout.) These sequences are not short and are often crucial to the plot. More than once, it occurred to me that many in the audience had paid upwards of $100 to watch a film. This approach reaches the height of silliness in a romantic scene between Max Schumacher, Howard's former producer, and Diana Christensen, his rapacious replacement, which is staged on 44th Street, in front of the theatre: This results in Tony Goldwyn and Tatiana Maslany canoodling as passers-by offer skeptical sideways glances; the entire scene plays like an old episode of Candid Camera.

Goldwyn, a fine actor in most circumstances, is hopelessly at sea as Max, a grizzly survivor of the Ed Murrow era who, terrified of impending decay and death, throws over his wife (and integrity) for a fling with the sociopathic Diana. In the film, William Holden, a crumbling Adonis, his thickening waistline and every facial line cruelly on display, was just about perfect. Goldwyn is about the same age as Holden was in 1976, but his boyish demeanor is totally wrong -- he looks as if he'll be hitting forty any year now -- thus removing his character's principal motivation. Despite Maslany's best efforts, the role of Diana is so shot through with Chayefsky's misogyny that her scenes can be painful to watch. (The unfortunate scene in which Diana, having sex with Max, reaches a climax while discussing ratings, has been retained. She also negotiates with a Symbionese Liberation Army-style terrorist group for a reality series and she also arranges a killing.) Here, as elsewhere, Chayefsky's voice, even when trimmed back by Hall, retains its thuddingly denunciatory quality: Much of the time, Network comes off less a mordant joke than an all-purpose rant against a changing world, a middle-aged male writer's raging against the dying of the light.

The play's real drawing card is Bryan Cranston, who once again shows what a bona fide star is made of, slipping effortlessly into his unctuous broadcaster's voice and handling each of his character's wild mood swings with aplomb -- never more so than when informing his viewing audience that they are fools who would be better off shutting off their television sets. But if the actor is brilliant on a scene-by-scene basis, no attempt has been made to make Beale into a coherent character. His slide into insanity is precipitous and without psychologically opaque: In one scene he is a drooling madman, only to turn up a few minutes later, as nattily turned out and coolly assured as, say, Bill O'Reilly, whom he faintly resembles. This is less a performance than a star turn, and it is likely to please his fans, no matter what.

Also running around the Belasco, in roles of various sizes, are Frank Wood, Nick Wyman, Henry Stram, and Susannah Perkins. In the role of Max's wife -- which won an Oscar for Beatrice Straight, despite its extreme brevity -- Alyssa Bresnahan fails to make a single word of her dialogue sound convincing. This, I suspect, may have less to do with the actress and more to do with van Hove, who is so busy staging coups de théâtre involving Yarden's video and Eric Sleichim's music and sound design that anything having to do with nuance is left unattended to. Indeed, the production generates a certain superficial excitement, thanks to the confident deployment of its many bells and whistles. And Network offers the pleasure of a star at the top of his powers and an attempt at wrangling with the populism that is a defining fact of today's world. But stripped of its sound and fury and seen from the distance of four decades, much of Network's satire seems pretty elementary; the world left Chayefsky behind a long, long time ago. -- David Barbour

(18 December 2018)

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