The first thing anyone who has seen the 1976 Oscar-winning film Network will probably be wondering: does lead actor Bryan Cranston nail the iconic “mad as hell” speech? Does he truly capture the “je not going to take it anymore sais quoi” the way Peter Finch did when he originated the role of newscaster Howard Beale? Does the speech come across as didactic and stilted, or does it still retain its raw, cathartic power? Is it even the same speech as the film, or has the ’70s text been radically altered for our 24-hour news age?
In case the headline didn’t give it away, no one should doubt the chops of a man who could play Breaking Bad’s ruthless Walter White and Malcolm In The Middle’s zany Hal Wilkerson with equal amounts of colorful zeal and focused intensity. Cranston brings both his serious dramatic side and his impeccable comedic timing to the new Broadway adaptation of Network, written by Lee Hall and directed by Ivo Van Hove. And yes, Cranston nails the monologue, which is the centerpiece of this dizzying, often brilliant, sometimes weird-as-hell two-hour long production (no intermissions, so make sure you plan accordingly!).
Aside from Cranston’s outstanding performance—he nails each swing between erudite newscaster, tear-stained mid-life crisis, and of course, furious prophet of the airwaves—the most compelling aspect to the production is Van Hove’s remarkable staging. While Hall made the decision to keep the narrative based in the ’70s (and hence keep most of the original screenplay and those brilliantly-written monologues intact), Van Hove blends it with an anxious, ultra-modern sheen. There’s a steady musical score humming in the background at all times, cameras are hauled all over the set, and the stage is constantly abuzz with TV screens, an apt reflection of our frantic modern news era. There are multiple screens packed in stage left to represent the UBS newsroom à la CNN; a giant one center stage where Beale’s proclamations go out; and then the smaller ones inside a restaurant set stage right. (Note: a few audience members can buy tickets to have an actual meal and drinks onstage during the show, where they’ll inevitably end up interacting with the cast a little.)
— NETWORK Broadway (@NetworkBway) November 13, 2018
Van Hove, who previously helmed radical critically-acclaimed Broadway revivals of The Crucible and A View From the Bridge, clearly wants to draw some direct lines—sometimes surprisingly, often obvious—between the prophetic script and our current “fake news” era. It creates a strange but welcome tension between the present and the past for most of the play, with things only going off the rails at the very end (more on that down below).
The cast includes Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) as Max Schumacher, the jaded network news president originally played by William Holden, and Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) as Diana Christensen, the ice-cold programming executive originally portrayed by Faye Dunaway. Their story, including an ill-fated love affair, is also given extra emphasis thanks to Van Hove’s direction, which sees them walking the streets of NYC outside the theater at one point. There are snags to all these fancy camera tricks: the looks on the faces of oblivious NYers walking by elicited a lot of laughs from the audience, even though it was supposed to have been a seduction scene.
While both Schumacher and Maslany are good, Cranston’s amazing, physically-exhausting performance towers over the production—quite literally so when his face, twisted between madness and vision, is being projected onto the central giant screen (which happens quite a lot in close-up). The thing that really stands out about the performance—Cranston has already won the Olivier Award for best actor for the show’s run in London—is how much humor Cranston is able to squeeze out of such a dark satire. As revealed in Dave Itzkoff’s book Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky initially intended for Network to be a comedy, but instead found himself focused on the swells of anger rising throughout the country in the post-Vietnam/Watergate era, as reflected in television news broadcasts that were becoming “an indestructible and terrifying giant that is stronger than the government.”
The movie is so black in its satire that you probably didn’t notice the humor, especially if you’re someone, like me, who only saw it in the last twenty years, during a period in which many of its most seemingly cynical proclamations and over-the-top predictions about the commodification and degradation of TV news has become a frightful reality. I don’t think I’ve ever even chuckled watching the film, but Cranston is somehow able to draw out this strand of humor that was in the script all along, whether Beale is yelling at a cameraman or ad-libbing with the audience.
— NETWORK Broadway (@NetworkBway) December 4, 2018
Three-quarters of the play is so tightly bound with the movie, anyone who is a fan of the original will delight at seeing it brought back to life in such a temporally-daring and brilliantly staged context. But then comes the confused and awkward ending, which seems to be an attempt on Van Hove & Hall’s force a truly unnecessary button on the entire play. I’ll refrain from spoilers here and just note that Hall told the Times, “the play had to end with Beale undergoing ‘a moment of anagnorisis’ — some final realization about the truth of his experience.” Anagnorisis has never been this ana-groan-orisis.