Review: An Electrifying Bryan Cranston Is All the Rage in ‘Network’

Posted December 6, 2018 10:59 p.m. EST

Mncedisi Shabangu, left, and Luc de Wit in "The Head and the Load" at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, Oct. 3, 2018. A fiercely beautiful historical pageant by the South African artist William Kentridge commemorates a million Africans who died in World War I. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

For your sins, Bryan Cranston is all but flaying the skin off his body, night after night at the Belasco Theater. It is a demanding undertaking, both painful and rigorously skilled. And if you’re a glutton for great, high-risk acting, you owe Cranston the courtesy — and yourself the thrill — of watching his self-immolation in “Network,” which opened Thursday.

Cranston is portraying Howard Beale, a grand old newscaster who becomes a martyr to the inhumanity of television, in this churning, immersive stage adaptation — directed to overwhelm by Ivo van Hove — of the passionately remembered 1976 movie. Howard Beale, you may recall, is the role that won Peter Finch an Oscar.

But as fine as Finch was, his Howard remained a dutiful pawn in the bigger satirical scheme of writer Paddy Chayefsky’s take on corporate greed and a tube-addicted nation. Cranston, as befits someone portraying an unbiddable maverick, tears through the formulas of Lee Hall’s Chayefsky-honoring script to create a raging, bleeding portrait of a man who is a creature and a captive of a satanic medium.

If the bravura dementia of his Howard makes much of the rest of the show seem as two-dimensional as a flat TV screen, it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept, albeit with a sigh. Though he won a Tony Award playing Lyndon Baines Johnson in “All the Way” — and an Olivier for his Beale at London’s National Theater — Cranston became a surprising midcareer star on television, in the genial sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” and the savage meth opera “Breaking Bad.”

In other words, he knows from multiple cameras and how to seduce, confront and bond with them. What better qualifications to embody a man who has no sense of who he is when he’s not on the screen?

Thus Cranston’s true co-star in “Network” turns out to be neither of the show’s other marquee names, the very capable Tony Goldwyn and Tatiana Maslany. His chief wrestling, dancing and romantic partner here is the assaultive, tireless technology of the physical production.

Specifically, it’s the host of cameras trained on Cranston through each electrifying, tear-and-sweat-stained phase of Howard’s epic nervous breakdown, multiplying and transforming his every shade of expression. Van Hove and his technical team — especially set and lighting whiz Jan Versweyveld and video designer Tal Yarden — have created a vision of all the world as a television studio.

On one side of the stage is a glass-walled control booth; on the other a camera-ready dining area populated by audience members (who pay dearly for the privilege). In between, there’s the anchorman’s desk, where Howard first reads, then makes the news.

On the wall, and to the sides of the stage, there are the screens, what feels like an infinity of them. And as far as Howard’s concerned, that’s where reality lies, even when the on-air oracle he becomes — after being fired and rehired by the network — says just the opposite.

As he demonstrated in his illuminatingly unorthodox Broadway productions of two Arthur Miller plays, “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible,” van Hove aims at his audience’s gut, not its mind. And the opening moments of “Network” are as viscerally discombobulating as anything he’s done.

He places us in full medias (or media) res of the preparations for a nightly broadcast of the news. A digital clock counts down the minutes, then seconds, to airtime.

The frenzy of live action among the television crew is mirrored and eclipsed by the barrage of multiple images on the screens. (Theatergoers prone to anxiety attacks may want to stay at home.) Howard enters, brushing away makeup and costume people as if they were gnats. Once seated in his anchorman chair, he is fretful, peevishly checking how much of his shirt cuffs protrude from his jacket.

Then he’s on camera, and Howard solidifies into an emblem of Cronkite-esque responsibility and reliability. For a minute or so, anyway. Howard has recently been fired from the place he has worked and virtually lived for 25 years, and he goes off-script — way off-script. He announces his plans to kill himself on air.

The idea that madness might make for great ratings is the sardonic heart of “Network.” Sensing a chance to break her network’s last-place status, an ambitious young programmer, Diana Christensen (Maslany), wrests the news division from the weathered executive (and Howard’s best friend) Max Schumacher (Goldwyn).

She wants Howard to be as unhinged as possible, envisioning him as “a latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times.” Such encouragement leads Howard to that immortal moment — the one everybody remembers from the movie — when he urges his viewers to lean out their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” That scene acquires a new poignancy, and cathartic value, here because Cranston makes it such a personal, anguished cri de coeur. What’s scary is how his rage taps into an age of anger and confusion — the mid-1970s in the show, but also of 2018. And an aging madman with a podium and sense of betrayal is perceived as a savior for a troubled nation. Draw what parallels you choose.

There is more to “Network” than Howard, though, and it’s mostly far less compelling. Chayefsky was himself the premiere soap box ranter of screenwriters. And Hall’s reverential adaptation cherishes the original screenplay’s sputtering, didactic spiels.

In the film, director Sidney Lumet coaxed performances of natural surrealism from his cast, suggesting how its characters were all shaped and warped by an industry’s cutthroat superficiality. Aside from Cranston and Nick Wyman (as a Charles Bludhorn-like corporate mogul whom Howard hears as the voice of God), no one here approaches those demented heights.

That includes Maslany, the brilliant star of the sci-fi series “Orphan Black,” who never suggests that Diana is “television incarnate,” as Faye Dunaway did in her spectacularly artificial film performance. Still, Maslany is an improvement on Michelle Dockery, who played the part in London, and she successfully (and hilariously) reinvents the scene in which Diana comes to orgasm while talking about audience shares.

Maslany also has the misfortune of being part of the tedious autumn-spring romance between Diana and Max. (Alyssa Bresnahan, as Max’s long-suffering wife, completes the triangle.) The guilt and recrimination that ensue allow many examples of what Pauline Kael, bless her, described as “Chayefsky’s famous ear for dialogue in full cauliflower.” Despite Goldwyn’s convincingly burned-out persona, I had zero interest in this midlife crisis.

No, the middle-aged crash to track here, breathlessly, is Howard’s. As a portrait of a displaced man unraveling, Cranston’s wrenching performance stands on its own. In context, it’s a terrifying reminder of how an all-too-human, anger-filled public figure, with access to a worldwide stage, can be mistaken for a god.

In the 40-some years since the original “Network,” the possibilities for such access have only multiplied, of course. Just imagine, with a shudder, Howard with a Twitter account.

Production Notes


Tickets Through March 17, 2019 at the Belasco Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, networkbroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.

Credits: Adapted by Lee Hall; directed by Ivo van Hove; sets and lighting by Jan Versweyveld; video by Tal Yarden; costumes by An D’Huys; music by Eric Sleichim; production management, Aurora Productions; production stage manager, Timothy R. Semon; general management, Bespoke Theatricals. Presented by David Binder, The National Theater, Patrick Myles, David Luff, Ros Povey and Lee Menzies, Annapurna Theater, Blanshay-Yonover, CatWenJam Productions, Patrick Catullo, Delman Whitney, Diana DiMenna, Falkenstein-Grant, Hagemann Rosenthal Associates, GHF Productions, John Gore Organization, Harris Rubin Productions, Sharon Karmazin, Koenigsberg-Fan, Kors Le Pere Theatricals LLC, Alexander “Sandy” Marshall, Stephanie P. McClelland, David Mirvish, Moellenberg-Hornos, R.H.M.-Jonathan Reinis, Catherine Schreiber, Ken Schur, Jayne Baron Sherman, Cynthia Stroum, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Zeilinger Productions and The Shubert Organization, in association with Dean Stolber.

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