In ‘Network’ on Broadway, Design Battles Howard Beale

Played by a craggy, and mesmerizing Bryan Cranston, he's not going to take it anymore.

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Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale, plus some of the cast, plus some of the audience on stage, plus visual stimulation. Photos: Jan Versweyveld.

The countdown clocks are everywhere at the Belasco Theatre these days. Whether on a screen or presented verbally by characters playing TV technicians or embodied by main characters playing veteran newsmen and newswomen, digital drives Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film Network. The design almost overwhelms the story.

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Network is a story about story: how televised events can attract huge audiences and kill talent and lives, and how corporate power-plays affected broadcast news circa 1976. Howard Beale, played by craggy, mesmerizing Bryan Cranston, is at the tail end of his career and about to be canned. He announces his decision to kill himself, on air, on his final day, some two weeks hence. His old friend, Max Schumacher — played by a stolid, fit Tony Goldwyn, not seeming old enough to play “corporate establishment” — is forced to fire Howard while fearing his own growing irrelevance. Meantime, Diana Christensen, in the form of the electric Tatiana Maslany, is a youngish program developer (played by Faye Dunaway in the film, winning her an Oscar), who skirts the ethical edges with instincts for what, today, we call reality TV. In the not-so-cherished tradition of TV broadcasting, she starts an affair with Max. “We’re not in the business of morality,” Diana tells him. “We are in the business of business.”

Goldwyn as Max and Maslany as Diana.

It falls to the strong, evocative Alyssa Bresnahan, in the role of Max’s patient and wise homemaker wife, Louise, to deliver one of the best monologues ever written about the grasp-at-life sexual affairs of men in midlife when she confronts Max about the affair. But here’s what I mean about design, and the staging by Ivo van Hove, nearly overwhelming the story This confrontation scene may be most powerful for those of us who know it from the film and, going in, hoped it hadn’t been cut. It’s not, but in von Hove’s staging, it takes place partly upstage and partly on film, compromising the immediacy of the live performance yet never quite packing a cinematic wallop.

And then Howard takes his ravings just a step too far, and Max finally realizes that Diana is pure business and no soul; soon, she hits a program development wall with her corporate superiors. Chayefsky’s grey-toned universe is one we live in, 40-plus years later. And van Hove doesn’t trust us to see that on our own.

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Hall’s adaptation does seem a fine culling of the 1976 film. Marital stresses, generational work transitions, corporate decision-making all contribute to the Network origin story: the impulse to create reality TV out of cost effectiveness and visceral impact. When Diana tells her boss, Hackett, played by a type-ready Joshua Boone, that Howard’s initial breakdown wasn’t a source of concern but rather an achievement to exploit for ratings. The words that Diana spoke in 1976 — “Howard Beale sat there last night and said what every American feels, that he’s tired of all the bullshit” — ring achingly true in 2018. “He’s articulating the popular rage,” she concludes, and he is.

But expecting an audience to rely on their familiarity with source material is as slick as milking a madman’s ranting for rating. Do story pieces and plot points retained from the film communicate to a new audience unfamiliar with the original work? If you have to ask…

Maslany as Diana; Martinez as Harry Hunter.

Even so, let’s acknowledge van Hove, who literally choreographs the technological talents of scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, video designer Tal Yarden, and even the classical cinematic music designed by Eric Sleichim into an elegant, ever-shifting stage world. Yarden’s video design almost dances, but van Hove doesn’t trust that, either; he has it constantly echoing and competing with the action onstage. (I might add: presenting ads from the 1970s will distract those of us who remember them.)

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There are other times in Network when the screens and the general ambiance dims and some incredible stage images emerge. Watch for some potent black-and-white shadow work featuring Howard and his corporate overlord, Arthur Jensen, inhabited by an angular, terrifying, boom-voiced Nick Wyman.

In fact, perhaps the director’s idea is never to let the audience feel too comfortable in any medium, stage or film. There are scenes set with chairs and desks and edges of couches; actors might traverse the stage to play a scene not always visible from the audience but captured, to be sure, on one of the screens gracing the stage and posted everywhere — the tip of the proscenium, tucked behind the walls of boxes, probably in strategic points of the balcony. Amidst scrims and edges, screens and reflections, it’s easy to lose track of where the live actors are on stage or whether they’re on stage at all. Note an extended video cam sequence that takes place outside the theater that takes a few minutes to track.

It’s almost as if van Hove knows that design can cut two ways, either tripping up the story when it begins to haunt us, or getting out of the way for breathtaking effect. At a pivotal point, Howard, in a state of mania, takes his place before the camera, yet holds the stage. There’s craziness in Cranston, but the crazy is quiet: we believe Howard may well have roamed the streets for hours, mumbling to himself. In a sequence of extended silences, his heartbreaking Howard finally yields to the explosion we await: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” It’s a scene begun on a bare, dimly lit studio stage — van Hove holding design and technology at bay. Then, Howard silently gathers his energy, mirrored by a slow filling up of the stage, as if word has arrived: something is happening here. We’re riveted by a performer in stillness — the news messenger as angry prophet.

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From a comfortable perch on the lip of the stage, Howard’s last words ruminate on his legacy: “The thing we must be most afraid of is the destructive power of absolute beliefs.” People, and the connections among them, must rule. Both Chayefsky’s story and Hall’s adaptation leave us there text-wise, design and technology unnecessary to underscore the power of the scene. Yet there’s a post-curtain call video montage of presidential moments that elicited cheers and boos at the performance I attended.

Howard’s prophecy haunted me more than shadowy stage pictures and countdown clocks and vintage TV ads. There’s that line — “When you’re mad enough, we’ll figure out what to do.” Let these words shine. Let us craft our own visual extension of their premise. Let us contemplate the terror of untethered leadership in our own contemporary dystopia.