In Broadway’s “Network,” Bryan Cranston does the impossible: Playing Howard Beale, the so-called mad prophet of the airwaves, he makes Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning turn feel like yesterday’s news.
So mesmerizing is the “Breaking Bad” star as the vulnerable, volatile newscaster that there should be an insert in the Playbill: Please pick up your jaw before leaving the theater.
If only the rest of the show was even half as good.
“Network” seemed far-fetched and outrageous in 1976, when Paddy Chayefsky’s dark movie masterpiece premiered. But that was years before cable news and reality TV. These days, Beale’s immortal line, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” sounds completely plausible.
Still, it’s tricky to update a classic, especially one with such indelible performances. Howard’s best friend, newsman Max Schumacher, and the take-no-prisoners programming executive, Diana Christensen, were played by William Holden and Faye Dunaway at the height of their power. Here, they’ve gone to Tony Goldwyn (“Scandal”) and “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany, both of them miscast and bland.
For the story to work, Diana needs to be irresistible, commanding and cutthroat, a ratings-obsessed vampire able to both captivate Max and inspire him to lament, “I’m not sure she’s capable of any real feelings.” Maslany’s Diana seems more like just a pushy climber, while Goldwyn’s husky line readings are no substitute for actually bringing gravity to the part.
Playwright Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), hewing closely and at times verbatim to Chayefsky’s screenplay, fails to rustle up any resonance or fresh insights for today’s era of fake news. What he has done is create a showcase for Cranston, who nails his character’s craziness, wisdom and sincerity. He even steps off the stage now and then to chat up some theatergoers.
Compared with director Ivo van Hove’s earlier reinventions — the one-man food fight in 2007 in “Misanthrope,” the rainstorm of blood in 2015 in “A View from the Bridge” — his staging here feels conventional. “Network” has video, Steadicams and projections of close-ups, but that’s hardly envelope-pushing in a story about TV.
Still, there are gimmicks. As a countdown clock ticks off seconds until showtime, the actors on stage do yoga (downward-facing stunt?), have their makeup applied and chat amongst themselves. Their set is a sleek triptych, with a huge screen for streaming live video and commercials flanked by a glass-boxed control room on one end and a working restaurant/bar on the other. In the latter, called Foodwork, 22 theatergoers who’ve paid anywhere from $299 to $399 a ticket dine on shrimp rolls and beef tenderloin, surrounded by the actors. Is Hove saying we consume news like entertainment — or is he hoping for another food fight? In either case, unless you’re sitting onstage eating with them, it makes no real impact.
It’s a shame. “Network” starts with a bang, as Cranston delivers one of Howard’s unhinged live broadcasts, with everyone hustling around him like a single, one-celled organism. But when the focus veers from Howard to corporate doublespeak and a cliched melodrama — at least as it’s played here — about an extramarital affair, it’s time to switch channels.
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