Network at the Belasco Theatre has more production bells and whistles than one can handle. The Belasco has been turned into a shiny contemporary landscape with a massive screen acting as a backdrop for a set, divided into three principal components. They are: a glass box TV production gallery, a newsroom studio, and a Manhattan-style restaurant and a bar (at which audience members can book a table if they’re willing to pay up). It all looks very glitzy.
First Bryan “Heisenberg” Cranston appears as Howard Beale, an old-time news anchor getting horrible ratings. Not unlike Walter White in Breaking Bad, he undergoes a dramatic character transformation. Beale turns into a TV profit, spewing his world views on us and telling us “he’s mad as hell” with the way the world is right now. The more nutty he becomes, the higher his ratings soar. Out to milk every point in the ratings is Michelle Dockery as a ruthless TV exec (she stops at nothing to prevail).
Network is more a play about ratings-obsessed media, corporate cynicism, the corruption of TV viewers, and the distortion of the truth in the media. It is a play for today with what is going on in the press and various sources of news.
This production of Network is two dimensional and rather disappointing to me. When I entered the theater, I thought I was in for a great show. Thirty minutes into the show (two hours no intermission), the cast and crew were having way more fun than I was. On-stage TV cameras give us much of the action we see onto a giant screen at the back of the stage. More like a set for a rock concert than a Broadway production, it just doesn’t awe us nor add anything worthwhile for the show’s performers. In an intimate theater, in fact, I felt like the actors felt more distant than what the scenographer was trying to put-forth.
I could not figure out why there is a restaurant on stage. Does the director want us to be toyed with as to what is real and what is fantasy? Was he not confident in the script enough that he had to dress it up?
Lee Hall missed a golden opportunity to update the central themes that were embedded in the original film. The light he shines on the nature of television news, undue corporate influence, and a culture of populism is weak in Network. The show just doesn’t deliver the knockout blow it could have.
Bryan Cranston is excellent as Howard Beale (Olivier Award in London 2018 for his role in Network). Beale is an old time newsman. He is not a good guy. He is arrogant, egotistical, and suffers from dementia. Beale gets worse when he realizes his newfound popularity. A big problem in this play is that they let him get a pass and as such he becomes a preachy, revered figure. His profound presence is why Network is a lost soul.
Tony Goldwyn (Max Schumacher) is like Howard Beale. He is an old, worn out relic of the news networks. He is the only one who will stick up for Beale. He is the only one who wants the news to be professional without compromise. Schumacher sees this side show as one that in the end will be both a disaster for Beale and the news station. In conflict, the news organization, UBS, wants to get rid of Schumacher but cannot. He carries too much sway over Beale both mentally and psychologically. Schumacher gives into the network a little because he still loves the glory, Tatiana’s warm touch, and all that goes with being successful. Struggling with his own mortality, he leaves his wife for this young women who he admires as a producer at the network.
Some people will think Network is the best thing ever. Traditional theater goers will probably not think so. In all my years in theater, I have not seen anything like this play. From the film we watch outside the theater to the feel of an actual news set, it is both unique and unusual. If the play was not unorthodox enough, it had music playing in the background piped across the theater so we had music to contend with under the commotion that was going on up on the stage.