We all got mad as hell, said we weren’t going to take this anymore, and look what it got us: a reality-TV clown in the White House, a planet one generation away from ecocide – oh, and lots of nice shows to binge. Are we not entertained?! Who wouldn’t watch viral clips of a wild-eyed, Old Testament prophet decrying our moral bankruptcy? It’s all part of the show. That’s one of the takeaways from the Ivo van Hove-directed Network, a strangely wan and out-of-step stage adaptation of the 1976 film. What was frighteningly prescient right before the Carter Administration now seems quaintly admonitory amid the manic, performative idiocy of the Trump era. Trying to find a fresh twist on Paddy Chayefsky’s sweaty nightmare of corporate globalism and social breakdown is not so easy.
One tactic used by van Hove and playwright Lee Hall, who adapted the screenplay, is to airbrush out Chayefsky’s messy anxieties about feminists, militant African Americans and post-Nazi fascists, and play up our uneasy love affair with technology. That’s what Fintan O’Toole articulates beautifully in an essay in The New York Review of Books: More than 40 years ago, Chayefsky targeted not only corporate neoliberals, but ordinary Americans tearing themselves apart over race, class and gender. His cold-blooded TV producer, Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany) is a sexually “masculine” new kind of woman, part feminist, part psycho. There’s a pseudo-Black Panther terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army, eventually offered a slot in prime time. The movie’s clothing and cameras are obviously dated, but the battle over identity politics is evergreen. And that’s pretty much absent in this Broadway incarnation.
Satire is not kind or politically correct (much less liberal). At the same time, more enlightened comedians resist the urge to “punch down” – to score laughs off those who are not in power, such as trans people, immigrants or victims of harassment. In place of Chayefsky’s un-PC grotesquerie, Hall and van Hove cultivate a sleek, free-floating paranoia about media and dehumanization. I can’t help but wonder if American artists – not an English playwright and a Belgian director – might have updated Chayefsky’s satire with bite for today.
Everything certainly looks stylish. The Nordic-minimalist set, designed by longtime van Hove partner Jan Versweyveld, is an antiseptic zone of glass cubes and wide-open projection surfaces. To the right, audience members who have ponied up extra cash sit on stage and enjoy food and drinks served to them. (Pay big bucks to exemplify our classist critique!) Black-clad technicians roam the stage with handheld Steadicams, weaving among the actors and projecting their movie-size images onto jumbo screens in real time.
As pure multimedia spectacle, it’s impressive. As drama, it works fitfully. There’s no denying the vigorous acting by Bryan Cranston and Maslany, who enliven every scene they’re in, and often rise above the digital noise of van Hove’s busy staging. Cranston plays Howard Beale, the longtime TV news anchorman whose dismissal leads to a mental breakdown on camera that, ironically, gooses the ratings – saving his job. Howard, with Diana’s help, remakes himself as a ranting prophet of the airwaves, urging viewers at home to stick their heads out their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The irony about the catchphrase, beyond its inchoate impotence, is how it turns an individual expression of anger into a lemming-like chorus of complicity.
Diana understands that chaos and confusion make good Nielsen (as have TV executives who aided in the rise of Trump). Fiercely focused, cool and magnetic, Maslany is the ice cube plopped into Cranston’s single-malt scotch, and she’s great fun to watch in the glassed-in control booth, deriving a nearly sexual thrill from Beale’s mounting insanity. As Max Schumacher, an old-school news producer and Beale’s colleague, Tony Goldwyn has virile appeal, but lacks the crusty, hardened edge that William Holden brought to the role on film. A less sympathetic, slightly cruel actor would have completed the power trio with Cranston and Maslany.
Hall’s script remains faithful to Chayefsky’s juiciest bits while also, as mentioned, smoothing out its potentially offensive satire and grim ending. You can’t help noticing that the original dialogue is often stagey, florid and studded with ten-dollar-words: “anodyne,” “jeremiad,” “edict,” “protestations.” In theory, such rhetorical flourishes ought to work in the theater, but between van Hove’s ultra-visual packaging and the coolness of the acting (they have to switch to camera a lot), the lines often seem antique and stiff. Still, Cranston brings it alive, and Maslany imbues Diana’s ambitious screeds with animal vitality. Cranston’s “I’m mad as hell” monologue is drenched in pathos, with the camera creating a video feedback loop of our sputtering, pixilated Jeremiah.
For those who have never seen an Ivo van Hove production, the coups de théâtres will be very coup-y: the masterful choreography of bodies and cameras, the densely layered music and sound (by Eric Sleichim), scenes shot live right outside the theater, the use of video for clever misdirection of the eye – particularly in a bloody climax near the end. If you’ve been following the director’s output for years, however, all these signature gestures will be less revelatory. But let’s face it, audiences are not coming for European mise-en-scène. They want to see the Breaking Bad dude go crazy, live, in person. Fame, anger, outrage – that’s what makes ratings, and ratings are power. At least, that’s what our president thinks.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.