“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” isn’t precisely how I felt watching—and listening to, ‘cause it sure is loud—Ivo van Hove’s stage version of Sidney Lumet’s Network, the 1976 Oscar-winning film. But I definitely did have a restrained reaction to the opus Lee Hall adapted rather faithfully from Paddy Chayevsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay.
Before I get into all that, I need to report that the “I’m mad as hell…” phrase Chayevsky sent into the ether 40 years back is not only broadcast from the stage multiple times but blasted by the audience as well. In other words, whereas moviegoers weren’t encouraged to repeat the utterance (how might they have been?), ticket buyers get the chance to join in the fun. At the same time they prove eager to behave with sheep-like docility.
(Or maybe they are truly mad as hell: at escalating ticket prices. Maybe not.)
So the spectators are having a good time—or think they are. They’ve given themselves over to the volatile tale of UBS newscaster Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston, breaking quite good here) who, due to poor 1975 ratings, has been fired by news executive and best friend Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn). As a result and having nothing else in his life, he decides to end it all before his television audience.
This infuriates higher-ups like network head Edward Ruddy (Ron Canada) and upcoming go-getter Frank Hackett (Joshua Boone) but not ambitious, conniving Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany). She sees Beale’s talk of everyday “bullshit”—and his threat of on-air suicide—as the key to increased ratings, which can lift UBS from heavy financial loses and reap greater revenues.
Christensen gets her way, partially by cozying up to Schumacher, who then leaves wife Louise (Alyssa Bresnahan) for the young careerist. Beale is encouraged, coaxed, and cajoled into messianic broadcasts about, among other things, the unreliability of the news and the loss of individual freedom. This all clicks until Beale’s nightly harangues begin to pall, ratings slip and the unhinged, self-deluded fellow meets worse developments.
It does behoove me to report that during Beale’s dizzying discourses, he conjures some unusually contemporary references. Carrying on about the media’s skewed reflection of events, he falls just short of saying, “Fake news.” Further focusing on viewers getting their entire vision of the world through television coverage, he could be describing boob-tube addicts like, say, Donald J. Trump.
So that’s the Network plot gist. Then there’s the manner in which van Hove presents it. For many of his earlier works—right up to his earlier Broadway entry, A View From the Bridge—the busy director made a habit of playing a script’s subtext. (It worked gangbusters with the Arthur Miller drama, but that’s an exception. His The Crucible? Not so hot.)
As of his recent take on Luchino Visconti’s The Damned he appears to be stressing milieu. That’s to say he emphasizes environment with as much theatricality as he can muster. He and scenic/lighting designer Jan Versweyveld muster plenty, which is to say that since this is Network, he’s thinking tv production. Cameras circulate, a huge screen hangs upstage to stand-in for a flat tv, monitors abound, lights blaze, engineering cubicles take up space, technicians and staffers scurry, a make-up room and a bar are housed in barely seen corners. There are even two rows of small tables at which audience members are planted to snack and suggest ratings populations.
The result is sensory overload. That, of course, may be (must be?) van Hove’s intent. It’s understandable that Network is employing “network” as a metaphor. True, we’re all swamped by every damned thing coming at us on a daily basis. True, we’re drowning in too much of a muchness.
Yes, repeatedly during the drama we’re not certain where we’re supposed to be looking; but van Hove’s allowing myriad distractions only obscures the ideas Chayevsky got across on screen. Now those critical notions sometimes seem confused and/or confusing. At other times as they probe the television’s deleterious societal effects, they seem wrong-headed and melodramatic. Maybe as 2018 slides into 2019 that’s more Chayevsky‘s problem. If so, van Hove and Hall aren’t doing anything to improve it.
There’s another significant drawback: While creating his mirror-held-up-to-nature world, van Hove doesn’t appear to be paying any more than cursory attention to the actors and the acting. To his credit, Cranston runs quite an emotional gamut. He’s particularly amusing when first seen reading the news with a pronounced set of what could be called newsreader’s mouth. Okay, he plays the scene in which he comes up with the “I’m mad as hell…” proclamation as if he’s King Lear on the heath. Still, remember that in King Lear’s stripped circumstances he’s also mad as hell.
As for the other players, it looks as if van Hove hasn’t done much more than give them a generalized director’s request that they issue wall-shaking yells whenever they have the slightest urge.
Despite having a brazen on-stage intercourse-to-climax interlude, Goldwyn and, especially, Maslany fail to suggest obligatory sexual chemistry. Bresnahan certainly milks her wronged-wife moment for all it’s worth. Among the other scenery chewing personae, restrained Nick Wyman, in two sequences as pragmatic exec Arthur Jensen, looks good. Also, reliable actors like Frank Wood and Henry Stram can’t be blamed for excesses, as they’re hardly more than supernumeraries.
For the record, Cranston as Beale initially blasts, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Then he hurls, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take that anymore.” Only then does he give out with, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” If you decide to attend Network for its occasional undeniable pluses, see how long you can’t take this, that or it anymore.
Network opened December 6, 2018, at the Neil Simon Theatre, and runs through April 28, 2019. Tickets and information: networkbroadway.com