I’m going to be a little unfair to Network, the new Broadway play based on Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed 1976 movie. Unfair because, in many ways, the stage version is impressive on its own terms. Adapter Lee Hall has kept much of Chayefsky’s pungent, literate dialogue and resisted the temptation to update his ’70s-era satire for a much different media age. (Remember the days when the worst threat to TV news was “happy talk”?) Director Ivo Van Hove has contributed his usual inventive staging, with an environmental newsroom set and video cameras projecting much of the action on a large screen at center stage. And Brian Cranston is possibly the only actor who could come close to matching Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning performance as Howard Beale, the deranged anchorman who becomes the “mad prophet of the airwaves.” The play is intelligent, relevant (in a way Chayefsky could not have imagined), and so dense that it makes most other “serous” Broadway plays — American Son, Lifespan of a Fact — look like first-grade primers.
And yet Network is one of the great American films of the ‘70s, and anyone who treasures it, as I do, has to be disappointed.
Casting is part of the problem. With the exception of Cranston, almost all of the key actors are pale replicas of their screen counterparts. As the principled news president Max Schumacher, Tony Goldwyn has none of William Holden’s craggy charisma; Tatiana Maslany, as the predatory programming chief Diana Christiansen, none of Faye Dunaway’s coiled sexiness. And Joshua Boone, as the corporate hatchet man so memorably played by Robert Duvall in the film, does little but shout.
Then again, they are asked to do the near impossible: reproduce the very filmic blend of apocalyptic satire and New York soap opera that made the movie so memorable. In some ways, the play is too faithful. The extramarital affair between Max and Diana, in particular, doesn’t really register at all, unable to convey the sexual and emotional tension that provided the human undercurrent for a cold and caustic film. As for Alyssa Bresnahan’s spurned-wife monologue (the speech that won Beatrice Straight an Oscar), it seems like a bolt from the blue, entirely extraneous.
Even Cranston’s riveting performance gave me qualms. His breakdown on camera (with a minute or so of agonizing silence as he gropes for words), is beautifully played, and probably more realistic psychologically than Finch’s more flamboyant turn in the movie. But it smacks too much of an actor’s showpiece for Tony voters (his Best Actor award is all but sewn up). Moreover, it’s primarily played to the camera — his facial contortions blown up so all can see them on the big video screen — rather than to the theater audience. And it actually throws the play a little out of whack. Though he’s the animating character, Network is not the story of Howard Beale. Just as the fictional UBS network exploits his breakdown for its own crass commercial purposes, so Chayefsky used him as merely the pretext for a larger and more potent critique of corporate amorality. The centerpiece of the film is not Beale’s famous “mad as hell” rant, but the thundering boardroom lecture that CEO Arthur Jensen delivers, urging Beale to put his messianic rage in service of the new corporate gospel.
That scene falls flat too. In the film, Ned Beatty boomed out his commandments — “You have meddled with the primary forces of nature, Mr. Beale!” —in a darkened boardroom, his face obscured and viewed from a godlike distance. Here, Jensen (Nick Wyman) simply stands on a raised platform and shouts to Beale below. If ever there was an opportunity, in this video-happy production, for the dramatic use of video (Jensen as a disembodied Big Brother!), this was it. An odd missed opportunity.
Still, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing Broadway’s new Network. And then going back to watch the movie again, as a reminder of what made it great — and what has been lost.