Sunday, December 16, 2018

Review of "Network"

The stage adaptation of the 1976 film classic Network succeeds solely for the tour-de-force performance of Bryan Cranston as the aged, downtrodden newsman Howard Beale who, on the brink of professional collapse, rises Phoenix-like to become a modern-day prophet railing against corruption, greed, and political ineptitude.  There is a lot of flash and glitz to the production, courtesy of Scenic Designer Jan Versweyved, but it is the performance of Cranston, which sets the stage ablaze with fury and passion.

As with the movie, the focus is on Howard Beale, a venerable TV news anchorman for a second-rate network, who has been fired from his lofty position due to poor ratings, by his best friend, Max Schmacher (Tony Goldwyn), the news division head.  On his last broadcast Beale disregards the text scrolling on the telepromoter and goes on an impromptu, profanity-laden speech where he declares he will commit suicide on-the-air. Aghast, the network executives immediately fire him until his friend convinces them to give him one more chance for a dignified exit.  Once again, Beale starts ranting when the cameras begin rolling and the network looks to immediately cut ties with the seemingly off-hinged newsman.  However, unexpectedly, the ratings soar during the broadcast.  A young, driven producer, Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), with questionable moral and ethical views, sees the potential of a ratings bonanza for a TV program allowing Beale to speak his mind and convinces the network’s higher-ups to keep him on the air.  At first, the Howard Beale show becomes a top-rated, money-making machine, but eventually the appeal wanes.  This triggers a series of cascading events, affecting the lives and careers of all the central protagonists.

In his screenplay for the film, written over 40 years ago, Paddy Chayefsky, was eerily prescient on the evolution of TV news and corporate consolidation.  What he fabricated then is common place today - the all-powerful influence of television, corporate intrusion into the newroom, the blending of news and entertainment (It was only one year after Network’s cinema release that Roone Arledge, President of ABC Sports, was promoted to President of ABC News), and the consolidation of media companies.  Even the birth of reality programming can be traced to the central plot of the movie.  Lee Hall’s adaptation of the screenplay is a faithful rendering, which highlights all the central plot points of the film.

Director Ivo Van Hove keeps the production fast-paced, mirroring the frenetic bustling and energy in a TV newsroom.  He scatters technology about the stage, giving the performance space a real TV studio feel.  The production dazzles when Van Hove has Cranston out front.  Otherwise, the corporate interplay and backstabbing, while intriguing, are not as compelling.  The relationship between Max and Diana is also not too engaging.  One of the central difficulties the director faces is creating cinematic type moments on stage.   He does, at times, succeed as when Arthur Jensen (Nick Wyman), the corporate president, stands high above the stage, preaching the gospel of corporate supremacy to a flummoxed Howard Beale.

As stated previously, the cast is led by the riveting performance of Brian Cranston as Howard Beale.  Superlatives such as triumphant, brilliant, and outstanding can all be used to describe his portrayal.  His “I’m mad as hell” speech is simply mesmerizing.  Tony Goldwyn instills the Max Schmacher character with a tired, defeated, and almost soul-less quality.  He has a foot in both the old and new world of electronic journalism.  The seasoned actor gives a passionate portrayal of a man who’s life, like his friend, is also spiraling out of control.  Tatiana Maslany imbues Diana Christensen with a cold-hearted determination who will do almost anything for a rating point or increased audience share.  But while appropriately callous and uncompassionate in her professional and personal life, she could have been even more icy and calculating.

Jan Versweyved set design is very high tech, the centerpiece being a large screen, which encompasses the back of the entire stage, bringing the action up front and personal.  At certain points, when the projection system is not displaying the activity on stage it can be somewhat distracting as the segmented screen shows multiple commercials from the late 1960’s, early-1970’s.  Remember “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” Alka Seltzer’s “That’s a spicey meatball,” and “Hai Karate?”

Network, a solid production with a magnificent performance by Bryan Cranston, now extended through April 28th on Broadway.

No comments: