When I hear or think of the word “SATIRE”, my mind often goes to the 1976 film NETWORK, written by the legendary writer Paddy Chayefsky and directed by the equally legendary Sidney Lumet.
Set in the then-present mid-70s, fresh off of such stressful times like the Vietnam War and Watergate, NETWORK was the story of a fictional fourth Broadcast network known as the Union Broadcasting System, or UBS, that is consistently dead last in the ratings and things are getting dire. Longtime newscaster Howard Beale is fired but it is being pushed as him taking an early retirement. This quickly causes him to make a proclamation on air that he is going to commit suicide live on the air during his final broadcast. What soon follows is a firestorm of press, the choice of a greedy female TV programmer wanting to exploit this man’s nervous breakdown, and the old-time News president who is worried over his friend’s mental state…and falling in love with said female TV programmer.
This is bare bones, but it gives you an idea of the basic outline of the story.
So, with 4 major Oscar wins, and also nominations for Best Picture and Best Director (which many people expected it to take these; ROCKY managed to win undeservingly, in my opinion), NETWORK was soon deemed an instant classic and it even unleashed a new catchphrase into the pop culture lexicon: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”.
Avant-garde theatre director Ivo van Hove and writer Lee Hall chose to adapt the movie into a stageplay; an act that is typically done more with movies that intend to become musicals rather than plays. With the casting of Bryan Cranston as the fiery Howard Beale, the show immediately piqued a lot of people’s interests.
Cranston is almost like a modern day Sally Field in some ways (though not as extreme). Hear me out: He was originally known for his TV work, primarily as Dr. Tim Whatley on SEINFELD and especially Hal on MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE. He was definitely respected for his comedic work (and it isn’t exactly like Sally Field as her TV work was pretty frivolous in comparison) but it took two big TV projects for people to go “Well….they can actually REALLY ACT!” Sally Field had SYBIL while Bryan Cranston got BREAKING BAD, in which he plays a downwardly mobile Chemistry teacher who discovers he has a rare form of Lung Cancer and by a series of events, ends up becoming a meth cooker/dealer with a former slacker student of his…and throughout the series, we see him go from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” as creator Vince Gilligan pitched it.
Cranston in this role was an absolute marvel. I watched him in awe seeing this man, who always came across as so cheerful and lovable in other roles and in interviews, disappear behind this despondent and eventually scary, dark façade. The role won him 4 Emmys and immense and sudden admiration amongst fans and Hollywood. With that success, it also led to an Academy Award nomination for his work in TRUMBO and a Tony Award for his Broadway debut as President Lyndon B. Johnson in ALL THE WAY.
So, fresh off an Olivier win for NETWORK’s original production on London’s West End, the production transferred to Broadway with him with strong reviews and word-of-mouth.
NETWORK is a problematic piece that exposes what cracks in the foundation were actually there all along. Upon close examination, one can definitely say that NETWORK, simply as an artistic piece, is rather soulless and empty. All of the characters are basically archetypes that are set in what they want but it’s all in service to the plot. Do we really care about these characters that much? Honestly, not much. What made the movie work was how utterly committed those actors were to their roles, and with a director like Sidney Lumet rehearsing them constantly in preparation in a way that was often unheard of in film, that is no surprise that fire and vibrancy filled the screen.
The stage version of NETWORK lacks the fire and vibrancy of the film due to a lot of the actors in this version being either miscast or not directed to their full potential.Another rather bizarre factor is that Lee Hall takes a lot of Chayefsky’s great dialogue but doesn’t do a lot to bring it his own flair; it is kind of a double-edged sword of a situation. What primarily keeps NETWORK above water are the stagevisuals and the performance of Bryan Cranston.
Ivo van Hove seems to be both equally admired and hated. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he strips his material down to the bare essentials, leaving a very blank canvas. He received a lot of praise, and a Tony Award, for his work on a revival of Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. Instead of its typical lower-middle class Brooklyn house set, he staged in in a wooden bench square with an alley way audience setup onstage in addition to those in the actual orchestra/mezzanine seats. Even though the show is set in the 50s, van Hove ignores accuracy and keeps the actors in modern clothes (though still somewhat timeless) and leaves a lot to the imagination. It is almost like a bizarre mix of abstract/avant-garde and gritty realism.
With NETWORK, he still keeps the show set in 1975 but the surroundings we see are anything but era appropriate.
With the use of onstage cameras and big screens that emphasize the news setting and having scenes occurring slightly offstage from audience view and even out on W 44th St as Diana and Max walk back in through the Theatre alleyway, everything about the production seems as though it were set today. The only things that tip off the appropriate year are the dialogue and the use of commercials from that era on the big screen center stage.
So, in many ways, when watching this show, I was in awe of the technical aspects and the stagecraft along with the emotional work of Bryan Cranston, who doesn’t carbon copy Peter Finch’s take on Beale. If anything, he is more emotionally distraught and broken than Finch, who eventually did build up to an angrier prophet type in the film.
The technical aspects did have their questionable moments. Having this set in the 70s but keeping a very modern technical feel is one thing but during the “I’m mad as hell” scene, they have the people that are screaming upon his request doing it as if they were releasing selfie videos out into the world, almost like it was a brand new Ice Bucket Challenge or something of that ilk. The lack of cohesion between the eras doesn’t always bother me, but this particular moment stood out in an odd way…and I can see why others might not like abstract approach.
As a whole, the rest of the acting ensemble was mostly forgettable or maybe solid at best.
Despite knowing the pedigree of the two leads, I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by Tony Goldwyn’s take on Max (previously played by William Holden) and especially Tatiana Malsany as Diana (previously played by Faye Dunaway). One of the biggest subplots of the show is the love affair that occurs between Diana and Max, and how Max is a married man. In the movie, we can sort of understand why Max would fall for Diana because she is an incredibly passionate woman who fights to get what she wants. To him, she is youthful and exciting and intense. Malsany’s Diana comes across as too calm and nonchalant. Very rarely do we see her experience the immense joy at the same neurotic level that Dunaway did…and perhaps she does find a good moment during her infamous talking during sex bit, but then it is back to the almost jaded monotone. It may have been a choice to make her seem somewhat soulless but if so, that was an extreme miscalculation.
One moment that really struggles under the weight of this production’s lack of drive is the Louise Schumacher monologue. This character is deceptively key to the plot in many ways because she is barely seen and yet, she has the chance to be a shining light of human emotion and pathos. In the film, Louise is played by theatre veteran Beatrice Straight and despite only appearing onscreen for just shy of five minutes, she managed to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (and this was pretty much for the previously mentioned monologue which is only about a minute of the screentime). Some TV broadcasts have been known to cut this particular scene out of the movie as it does seem like it isn’t exactly needed, and many other movies have certainly not gone as far to put a scene like this in. What the Louise scene does is show us, perhaps, the only real human being NETWORK. We feel her pain and her sadness and her anger and her defeat and her weariness and we feel compassion for her. It is a marvelous moment and a stellar piece of acting.
In the stage version, Louise is played by an actress named Alyssa Bresnahan. Now, Lee Hall writes in a new scene which gives her a little bit of new dialogue to sort of set up that she suspects something is up with Max. Okay, that’s all fine and dandy. However, by the time, we get to the big scene, we sort of feel tired and unwilling to peer in. There isn’t that much defeat or concern coming from Goldwyn and after watching him and Malsany all evening, it makes the scene all the more plodding. Bresnahan’s take on the monologue, and that also includes how she was directed, is a complete misfire. It is actually a masterclass on how a piece of dialogue can go from being a poetic passionate proclamation of sadness and anger and betrayal to an oddly worded and passive aggressive series of sentences. That is what I will call it…I can’t even really figure out a word that describes it without giving it too much credit. Some have faulted Chayefsky for writing dialogue that is too heightened and flowery to be realistic. While that may be fair to some extent, NETWORK was never supposed to be a truly subtle project. It was meant to be a satire after all, and while this particular scene isn’t funny by any means, the dialogue is screaming for, to use the phrase again, a passionate proclamation so when you do it a quieter level, it falls completely flat. It was easily one of the worst scenes I’ve seen on a Broadway stage.
NETWORK is a play that seems to have two major things going for it: Cranston and the stagecraft. Other reviews seem to stress a lot of these same factors. I do think NETWORK is worth seeing for these reasons and the fact that it opens up a whole new discussion on the flaws of the piece, or rather, what something looks like when you try to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. It’s no wonder the original film promotions from 1976 featured a thunderstorm motif: they had it on celluloid. The stage show simply didn’t .