Adapted by Lee Hall Based on the Paddy Chayefsky Film
Directed by Ivo Van Hove
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
When Howard Beale (a tortured yet determined Bryan Cranston) first admonishes his listeners to get out of their chairs, go their widows, stick out their heads and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” the audience at the Belasco Theatre erupts with a nostalgia that since the 1976 release of Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” has morphed into a current state of being: an irrepressible rage about the state of the world, particularly about the current political environment. The satire in Chayefsky’s iconic film transfers well to Lee Hall’s adaptation currently running at the Belasco.
Sitting at a bar after being fired as UBS-TV Network’s News Hour news anchor by Max Schumacher (a duplicitous and frightened Tony Goldwyn) his friend of twenty-five years, Howard tells Max he is going to kill himself by blowing his “brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the six-o’clock news.” Howard makes the same announcement during his evening broadcast which sets in motion the dramatic arc of “Network’s” brilliantly executed narrative about the vicissitudes of Howard Beale’s life, death, and life beyond death. This narrative involves the executive staffs of UBS-TV, its parent company CCA, and members of their families.
The broadcast’s associate producer Harry Hunter (Julian Elijah Martinez), director (Bill Timony), floor manager (Jason Babinsky) and station executive Frank Hackett (a determined and charismatic Joshua Boone) want to replace Howard; however, the ratings for the news broadcast reach its highest share after Howard’s rant and decisions whether to keep Howard on as anchor drive the play’s tension-driven rising action. Howard’s rants morph from curmudgeonly to leveling harsh criticism of the whole business of gathering and broadcasting news. He loses the support of his secretary (a seductive and self-willed Camila Cano-Flavia) and oddly garners support from CCA’s Arthur Jensen (a wily and villainous Nick Wyman).
Howard’s downward spiral and Jensen’s lack of desire to reign him in leaves the network executives in a quandary, particularly after Howard says, “Well, if there’s anyone out there who can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me man is a noble creature, believe me, that man is full of [expletive deleted].” Whether Howard Beale remains, or leaves has untenable consequences for the network, leaving Hackett to affirm, “I am going to kill Howard Beale. I’m going to impale the son of a bitch with a sharp stick through the heart.” The irony here is that despite Howard’s warning not to believe the “illusion” the networks are spinning, almost everything of significance the audience knows about Howard is learned through his broadcasts.
“Network” addresses important themes and raises equally significant enduring questions. “Network” parses the word ‘network’ in a variety of ways, adding richness and layered depth to the important narrative. Not only a term for a broadcasting entity, ‘network” also has the positive connotation of the important connection between individuals and communities. It also has the added more nuanced meaning of the type of networks developed and exploited by bots and trolls on the various social media platforms. So what meaning does the living, dying, and living beyond dying Howard Beale espouse?
Ivo Van Hove’s innovative direction successfully places the outstanding cast as well as the audience in the “live set” of a typical news broadcast. The ability to see Howard at the news desk as well as on screen and be able to hear all conversations is a magnificent feat. There is even a bit of legerdemain at the end of the play. Tal Yarden’s set is full of nooks and crannies that tantalize the audience’s interest in the normal and the nefarious “off-set” activities.
[Postscript: This reviewer found the onstage seating and eating extremely disruptive and annoying. The constant clanking of flatware on ceramic dinnerware is just as intrusive as an errant cell phone. Also, waiters moving around the tables distracted from the integrity of the performance. And why are the onstage patrons allowed to stroll around the stage and freely take photos while “regular” audience members are scolded when they wish to take a photo prior to performance? Hopefully, this style of elitism in stage seating and pay-for-privileges will not become de rigueur on Broadway.]