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Eye-jacked on Broadway: “Network” ’s relevance hits home at the Belasco Theatre

Toby Zinman reviews "Network" at the Belasco Theatre in New York.

Bryan Cranston (center), Tony Goldwyn (center right), and the cast of "Network," at the Belasco Theatre in New York.
Bryan Cranston (center), Tony Goldwyn (center right), and the cast of "Network," at the Belasco Theatre in New York.Read moreJan Versweyveld (custom credit)

Reality or illusion?

True or false?

News or fiction?

These questions are not nearly as new and provocative as they once were before the fourth wall was demolished, before actors started climbing into audience members’ laps, before smug cynicism co-opted righteous anger. Is the tail wagging the dog? What’s the lifespan of a fact? Can you ever forgive falsifiers? We’ve been here before, friends.

Network, the iconic Paddy Chayefsky film about television, has been been revived and for yet another medium. This very ferocious and very fancy stage version, adapted by Lee Hall for London’s National Theatre under Ivo van Hove’s high-concept direction, has arrived on Broadway with guns blazing, starring the redoubtable Bryan Cranston.

It is the story of Howard Beale, an old-timey TV newscaster who one night has an on-air meltdown, having “run out of bulls--t.” He famously asks the viewing audience to lean out of their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” They do. Ratings soar. An ambitious, hard-as-nails producer named Diana (Tatiana Maslany) realizes they have struck gold and creates a money-making phenom out of Beale, who continues to pontificate nightly, convinced he is “striking a blow for sanity.” The corporate boss explains global economics to us from a place, literally, on high, and various executives slime around behind the scenes of the network newsroom.

A subplot follows Diana’s affair with honest, loyal Max (Tony Goldwyn); Max’s wife (Alyssa Bresnahan) over-emotes an overwritten speech about “winter passion.” This is one of several leaden moments in this too-talky play.

There is lots of technological swagger in the scene and lighting designed by Jan Versweyveld, with video by Tal Yarden. It begins before the play begins, (so to speak; obviously, it begins as soon as there are actors on stage, even if the actors are pretending to be backstage). The stage is divided into several high-gloss, reflective sections. Stage right is a series of make-up and hair stations; stage left is a restaurant where members of the audience (who have paid a premium price) are seated and throughout the course of the play will be served dinner. Center stage is an area where the cast performs warm-up exercises on yoga mats, eventually replaced by the newsdesk.

Ivo van Hove knows exactly how to emphasize the play’s point — that we believe what we see on screens — by eye-jacking us. With live human beings right in front of us, we look at screens on which those same human beings appear enlarged and multiplied. There are monitors everywhere, and an enormous screen is the upstage wall. People with cameras prowl throughout, sometimes following the characters outside onto 44th Street. When Diana and Max have sex on a chair not two feet from them, the diners watch them instead on the huge screen — just like eating dinner in front of the TV.

Cranston is superb: He owns the show as he shifts from mess to messiah. Maslany, surprisingly, lacks the bite and veneer the role requires, despite her chameleonic abilities on Orphan Black. All the many, many minor roles, even those with long monologues, are stereotypes.

The point of a revival often seems to be stressing an older work’s relevance to the contemporary world. Ivo van Hove shows us that Network is as accurate as it ever was, that we are still fools, as the cringeworthy hucksterism of “APPLAUSE” signs and a warm-up man indicate, forcing us either to resist the show or become complicit. Tough choice.

Network. Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York.