Analysis: ‘Network’ With Bryan Cranston Is Convulsive, Immersive but still Mad as Hell

Mr. van Hove, the visionary overseas director who place Broadway shivering with his hyper-intense productions of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible,” can be an artist who thinks with his gut. And in collaboration with the creator Jan Versweyveld, his longtime spouse in aesthetic demolition, he features found vivid, viscera-tugging stage equivalents for the anger and displacement that infused a wild-eyed movie nowadays regarded by various as prophecy.

That’s the cinematic satire that took home a clutch of Oscars in 1977 for showing Americans that their souls were getting cannibalized by big television set and the bigger companies behind it. Directed with large bombast by Sidney Lumet, with a fulminating script by Paddy Chayefsky, “Network” tapped into the populist rage of a post-Nixon society, suspicious of most authority and stressed to the finish of its tether.

It seems safe and sound to say that such feelings are very much around again, if indeed they ever really went aside. And when it’s in sensory attack mode (as opposed to podium lecture setting), this revamped “Network,” piously adapted from Chayefsky’s screenplay by Lee Hall, feels as pertinent to your time since it did to its.

True, the monster television set that Chayefsky condemned, where minds were numbed and massaged through a central home set, looks kind of puny these days. Most homes are now filled with multiple screens, which record and transmit as well as receive images, turning daily existence into one big simple fact show.

But without resorting to apparent technological anachronisms, Mr. van Hove and Mr. Versweyveld include created an environment of invasive lenses that scramble the lines between public and private, between thought and deed. It’s not just what goes on on sound stages that’s magnified into splintered simulcast images. (Tal Yarden may be the feverishly imaginative video creator.)


What happens behind the scenes is also captured, flattened and projected. Which includes actions in broadcast control bedrooms, offices, bedrooms, boardrooms and even a restaurant where a pair of adulterous lovers carry out a cool quickie in full watch of their fellow diners.

Those voyeurs at another table, incidentally, could well be you, as this production offers ticket buyers the choice of dining onstage through the performance. Such inclusiveness is just another way of reminding us that we’re all complicit in this scenery of nonstop surveillance. (The same notion is normally underscored, more predictably, when a TV warm-up gentleman tries to do the job the audience into a rabid froth.)

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As Beale, the aging anchorman whose onscreen nervous breakdown turns him into a ratings feeling (played on display by Peter Finch), Mr. Cranston (“Breaking Undesirable” on television, “Completely” on Broadway) may be the excellent stark raving center because of this meticulously calibrated mayhem.

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From the first words Beale utters, he projects an eternity of assumed gravitas now shading into burnout. When he’s reborn as an evangelist of the airwaves – urging his public to open their windows and scream they’re not going to take it ever again – he’s the avenging phoenix that would inevitably rise from such ashes.

Observing him romancing the video cameras, and seeing him transformed into an army of simulcast selves, is one of this production’s wonderful, disorienting pleasures. Only if he didn’t need to sermonize so much.

I know, I understand. Beale’s jeremiads will be what make him a celebrity. But like the film, this “Network” quite often eclipses character with its bloviating didacticism. And whenever there’s a large speech to be produced – by Beale, or his honorable greatest friend, Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall), or the show’s various embodiments of institutional evil – the production decreases and e-nun-ci-ates with organ music (really) as underscoring.

There is a large supporting cast, but as individuals they don’t register very convincingly. Mr. Henshall is just excellent as a weary producer of fraying integrity who falls for a lovely young co-worker, Diana Christensen, who’s (poor thing) television set incarnate.

She actually is played by Michelle Dockery, a fine actress of stage (“Pygmalion”) and television set (“Downton Abbey”). But her generically eager performance below pales next to remembrances of Faye Dunaway’s audaciously stylized onscreen interpretation.

Caroline Faber has the thankless role (and excruciating dialogue) of Schumacher’s betrayed wife. Tunji Kasim and Richard Cordery will be serviceable as the sizzling hot and chilly incarnations of bureaucratic monstrosity.

Within an introduction to the script, Mr. Hall writes that there’s scarcely a phrase in it that isn’t Chayefsky’s. I do desire he’d been less reverent, since many of those words now audio tin-eared and melodramatic. (I found myself thinking that the show might have been better if it had been performed in Dutch by Mr. van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam troupe.)

It’s when all of the technological great features are operating that “Network” thrills, even while it agonizes. Mr. Cordery’s big boss physique may insist that it’s the message, not the medium, that finally prevails. But in this case, stagecraft nearly often trumps script in translating a fabled film from days gone by into a palpable, searing present.

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