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Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Man Talking

Bryan Cranston and cast of Network. 
Photo Jan Versweyveld.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

A significant satire, an imaginative director and a powerhouse star, odds are good that you're in for a compelling show.  With Network, you will not be disappointed. 

Originally written by Paddy Chayefsky, Network was an acclaimed 1976 film with memorable actor, Peter Finch, playing the doomed TV commentator, Howard Beale.  For the theater production, Lee Hall adapted the script and always controversial Ivo Van Hove brings to the stage his creative directorial skills with scenic designer Jan Versweyveld's non-stop, hyperkinetic atmosphere and Tal Yarden's video designs and bombardment of those Hidden Persuaders like antiperspirants and laundry soaps.

When you enter the theater, the stage of the opulent Belasco Theatre is bristling with action, setting a sizzling backstage look, Van Hove-style, of the frenetic television news world.  A desk and chair rolls center stage when necessary for TV commentator, Howard Beale, to do his nightly show.  One side of the stage offers audience stage seating with cocktail tables and a bar behind with occasional wait service.  Opposite is a composite of lighted cubicles for makeup, directors, cameramen and women.  For a stamp of authenticity, a huge television screen looms at the back of the stage.  Cameras project selected movements onto the screen, at one point aiming at the audience when Beale went down for a visit in the first row.  

The cast is large but Bryan Cranston's portrayal of Howard Beale is unconditionally the focus of a play that bludgeons the veracity of the news business and the malleability of TV viewers' judgment.  The timeliness of the technology is striking while it focuses on now familiar manipulations of corruption, ratings, and financial manipulations.

Beale is simmering inside, heating up to explode in a breakdown with the memorable moment when he calls for everyone to open their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Those words have remained in the cinema lexicon since Finch first shouted them in the film version but the magnetic full-volume performance by Cranston now makes them  his own. A downside is beseeching the audience to shout it out repetitively until its urgency  gets tiresome.  A lusty bit of "mad as hell" goes a long way.

The play is most alive when Cranston (All The Way, Breaking Bad ) is on stage, his soul is being destroyed by the  techno-mechanics manipulation of TV addicts.   The supporting actors are more than adequate. Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) plays Max Schumacher, a middle-aged, disenchanted news producer involved with a much younger Diane Christiansen (Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black), a callous producer of features who is scheming to reform news delivery from hard to entertaining.  Their lusty affair competes with the focus on Beale, even with their provocative sex scene, shoulder-to-shoulder with the audience on stage.  The most fun is how viewers try not to stare at the steamy lovers going at it right here, and instead turning to witness the hot action on the screen.  Telling is the post-coital moment when Diane's cell phone rings and she instantly pulls away, straightens her dress and walks off to take her call. Business, after all.

Max's breakup scene with his wife, Louise (Alyssa Bresnahan), well performed and touching as it is, also detracts from the galvanizing drama. 

Bryan Cranston's dive into a man's soul is galvanizing as it  is destroyed by the raging techno-mechanical world today. It is a thrilling performance as topical as this morning and as familiar as Diane's chilling line  to Max, " “We’re not in the business of morality...We are in the business of business.” 


The National Theatre production

Belasco Theatre

111 - West 44th Street. NYC

Previews: Nov. 10, 2018.  Opening: Dec. 6, 2018. Closing: April 28, 2019 (extended)

Running time: One hour, 55 min.  No intermission.

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Tony Goldwyn, Tatiana Maslany, Joshua Boone, Alyssa Bresnahan, Ron Canada, Julian Elijah Martinez, Frank Wood, Nick Wyman, Frank Wood, Barzin Ahkavan, Jasin Babinsky, Camila Canó-Flavià, Eric Chayefsky, Gina Daniels, Nicholas Guest, Joe Paulik, Susannah Perkins, Victoria Sendra, Henry Stram, Bill Timoney, Joseph Varca, Nicole Villamil, Jeena Yi.

Playwright: Lee Hall adapting Paddy Chayefsky's script for film

Director: Ivo Van Hove


Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

December 2018


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