For a change I can commend director Ivo van Hove, whose heavy-handed concepts often distort the works he stages. But this time his direction of “Network,” apart from my few caveats, is spot-on and exciting. Making the most of the star performance by the terrific Bryan Cranston, the director has done a spectacular job of staging this National Theatre production.
There’s not much point in comparing the theater “Network” to the film on which it is based. The theater has its own demands and opportunities. Paddy Chayefsky’s movie script has been adapted by Lee Hall for the new stage version and of course, liberties have been taken.
What van Hove has accomplished is creating a lively, busy and frequently hectic television studio atmosphere (excellent scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld and video design by Tal Yarden) with a huge screen as a centerpiece. When Cranston as TV commentator Howard Beale is on air, he is photographed by camerapersons and his image is hugely projected on the screen. The style is carried throughout, with others similarly projected.
It all has a dynamic effect, and at one side of the stage is the busy area for make-up and other off-camera activity. At the other side are some audience members who pay extra for the privilege of sitting at tables. This offers little benefit to the show other than as a moneymaking gimmick, and de Hove could have done without it.
As those familiar with the movie know, Beale is having a breakdown in the midst of his mounting rage at what’s going on all around us in our screwed up world. Cranston, in an extremely canny performance, builds slowly to his climactic moment when he asks everyone to go to their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Van Hove milks this to the extreme, with the theater audience cajoled into joining in the chant and the mantra is repeated more often than it should be. Beale also works up agitation over the domination of TV by powerful interests, and when his listener popularity soars, he is exploited to the fullest by those trying to use him to advance their careers. There comes a point, however, when there is a desire to dump him, and evil strikes.
“Network” is performed at just under two hours without an intermission. But there is some extra baggage that should be eliminated. It is effective to show the turbulent romance between Tony Goldwyn as Max Schumacher and Tatiana Maslany as Diana Christensen, two ruthless climbers in the network depicted, but the marital showdown between Max and his angry wife, Louise (Alyssa Bresnahan), could be eliminated, as it takes up time and slows the overall thrust of the main plot.
There’s also a cheap shot at the end. Before we get to leave, there are projections of presidents being sworn in and stating that they will uphold the U. S. Constitution. One can sense what’s coming and intended—a mass audience booing when we get to Donald Trump. As much as I detest Trump as president and can boo with the best of them, I find van Hove’s gimmick sleazily taking away from the stature of the show itself—a gambit he could do without.
Amusingly, the play offers a specific sex scene (clothed) between Max and Diana in the area on stage next to the audience members, with the hot action projected on the big screen as Diana climaxes amid her titillating talk about TV programming ideas. I laughed when I noticed a few of the audience members seated very close to the couple pounding away but watching them on the screen instead of looking at the lovers in action right beside them.
Rising above even the best of the staging is the mighty performance of Cranston. At one point he descends from the stage to sit between two audience members and chats with them and on the night I attended a woman become an excellent foil. This is a new and potentially award-winning theatrical feather in Cranston’s cap, even more striking than his portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed December 9, 2018.