One thing about Trump: He unwittingly makes a lot of Broadway dramas seem extra relevant. The Lifespan of a Fact—starring Daniel Radcliffe as a thorough fact checker battling a hazy author—comes off extremely urgent, since it’s hard to watch it without thinking of how Trump blatantly indulges in lies while ironically accusing credible journalists of creating “fake news.” And the premise of American Son—about the plight of a black boy at the hands of white cops—is super relevant in the age of Trump’s shamelessly racist actions and statements. And now we have Network, based on the blisteringly witty Oscar-winning 1976 film written by Paddy Chayevsky.
Network is about Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston), a troubled, faltering anchorman who falls apart onscreen and starts screaming rage-filled rants, which miraculously boost his ratings as he gets millions to scream along with him. Way ahead of its time, the film basically foreshadowed cable news—especially Fox News Channel—except that Beale’s monologues are based on a truthful contempt for corruption, crime, exploitation, and hypocrisy. He becomes a spokesman for the anger of the everyman—sort of like Trump, except, again, Beale isn’t pandering to bigotries, he’s speaking from the heart about the need to right the horrors of the world.
The Broadway version (adapted by Lee Hall) is directed by avant-garde wunderkind Ivan Van Hove, who likes to sprinkle subversive gimmicks onto classics, to the critics’ delight. This time around, he places a Plexiglass control room on stage right; a big video screen at center stage (with side ones too), which often show a grid of superficial ‘70s-style commercials; a ticking timer; and some audience members eating dinner on stage left, to reflect the way we robotically munch away as we stare at the telly, which dictates how we live.
Bryan Cranston is absolutely brilliant as Beale, playing a man who’s poignantly lost but at the same time gorgeously lucid. Beale is already depressed when he gets fired by his best friend, news head Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn), and vows on camera to kill himself. Instead of doing that, Beale continues breaking down—even more harrowingly than Peter Finch did in the movie—while coming up with screeds that might seem alarmist, but are actually right-on tirades about the need for anger in reaction to the way the world is run.
Max wants to take Beale off the air and get him psychiatric help, but cold-blooded programming director Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany) is thrilled with the huge ratings bump Beale’s screeching have ignited. As the anchor urges his viewers to yell out their window, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” they all do so, Cranston even coming into the live audience to banter and provoke some more. Some of his fired-up speeches are leveled at the lying “circus” of TV, biting the hand that feeds, and no matter what his topic, his speech patterns become somewhat more measured and focused as he goes on, gradually making him seem less looney than wise. But when he becomes a fad and his ratings slip, so does Beale—through the trap door of inhumanity into oblivion.
The adaptation seems to have the characters speaking a little less floridly than in the movie to make them more concrete, though the bite and intelligence remain. As in the film, Max becomes enamored of Diana and cheats on his wife (Alyssa Bresnahan) with her, only to feel guilty about having lost all sight of his decency. A key scene between Max and Diana starts out on the street—we see it projected on the video screen—and then winds up onstage, as the two have wild sex while Diana shrieks orgiastically about ratings and power. (She even wants to do a soap opera about gays called The Dykes. I probably would watch that.)
Cranston leaves virtually everyone else onstage in the dust with his textured, rousing, and heartbreaking performance, but Goldwyn manages to project a world-weary lapse into immorality, while Maslany—while not possessed enough—mounts in outrage for a climactic turn of events that I won’t reveal. Bresnahan does very well with the “I hurt” monologue that Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for, and I have to also credit Jan Versweyfeld for scenery/lights and Tal Yarden for video design.
The resulting multimedia experience is both funny and chilling as it spills secrets about our heartless society and the importance of communality and ideas in battling that. But watching it, I thought, Today, all the producers would have gotten behind Beale’s ratings surge immediately—and in fact, every single show would be like his, if they could. But not as truthful. Thanks to Paddy Chayevsky, Howard Beale turns out to not be the only “prophet of the airwaves.”
One misstep: As you’re starting to leave the theater, the play’s final moments are heavy handed. A video montage is shown of various Presidents taking their oaths of office to suggest the difference between those who gracefully step into power and those who stomp on it—but at least it provides one more chance to jeer at Trump.