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Posted 12/9/18

Network, reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

Sometimes, the past is prologue.

That’s especially true when it comes to the power of media and technology. It can be a force for good or evil, as Howard Beale, the United Broadcasting System’s TV anchor, makes clear in the riveting drama Network, now at the Belasco Theater.

Based on the 1976 movie written by Paddy Chayefsky, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, the theatrical incarnation is tighter and more pointed. Thank Bryan Cranston; his Beale is a mesmerizing portrait of a soul in torment. With his craggy face and go-for-broke demeanor, Cranston plays Beale as a man propelled by an inner truth, yet vulnerable to manipulation.

His famed “mad as hell” mantra works on two levels: an evocation of anger — now a stalwart on cable TV — and “madness.” That is, a mental state in which any attempt at conformity has been discarded. In his slick suit and anchorman delivery, he condemns corporate greed and moral bankruptcy, while promoting simple decency. Truth that offends the established order can often be dismissed as mad or suspect. In a capitalist society, Network underscores, the only eternal value is monetary.

The tough part is deciding what is real and what is manufactured.

A huge TV screen dominates the stage’s back wall, interspersed with images of the principals — a camera constantly follows them — and vivid ’70s commercials. Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting design and Tal Yarden’s videos push the action to the breaking point.

Yet, Beale’s doomsday prophet isn’t crying into the wilderness. He’s looking straight into the camera and a rapt audience. And he will be noticed and sustained — provided he proves profitable. Which is why Lee Hall’s adaption of the famed film ratchets up a larger truth: The medium isn’t the message. The message is the message. “TV is the hardware,” Beale explains. “What matters is the idea.”

More focused than its source material, which expanded the personal stories and TV feature pitches, the Broadway play zeros in on the excesses and dangers of fevered communications. It’s the ideas that count, a slick understanding that platform – think social media – may exponentially quicken delivery, but the nature of the missive – humane or toxic – will have the most impact.

Given Facebook’s potency in the 2016 election, coupled with the reach and influence of TV hosts, from Stephen Colbert to Sean Hannity, it’s a viable thesis. And director Ivo Van Hove’s fast-paced, exciting execution drives that point home.

Network might open in 1975 with coverage of Patty Hearst, but it’s not enough to sustain Beale, who’s just been fired by best friend and news head Max (Tony Goldwyn). Beale won’t go gentle into that good night; he opts to rage against the dying of the light, much to the delight of ruthless producer Diane (Tatiana Maslany), who convinces her corporate overlords that Beale’s diatribes spell big ratings and ad dollars.

Who cares what he says, as long as the network’s finances go from red to black!

Beale might warn against “the destructive power of absolute beliefs” — but it’s such absolutism that fuels action, positive and negative. Of course, what Chayefsky saw as a dark satire has morphed into mainstream media, which should scare anyone who cares about the greater good and individual worth.

Forty-plus years later, Network doubles as prescient commentary, not a hopeful sermon on avoiding pitfalls. Yet it’s a perfect vehicle for theater, given Cranston’s stunning performance. He took home a Tony as LBJ in All The Way; Network gives him another shot at the prestigious Best Actor category.

In an era of split-second Internet messaging, Network seems more akin — and terrifying — to our age than when it debuted. —Fern Siegel