‘Network’ in an Age of Fake News and Fury

One recent Friday afternoon, Bryan Cranston came bounding through the downstairs lounge of the Belasco Theater wearing little more than a bathrobe. He broke character briefly, offered a genial smile and calmly declared, “I have to go get crazy.”

Then he dashed up the stairs and onto the stage and sat behind a desk there. Resuming the role of a television news anchor who is coming apart at the seams, Mr. Cranston prepared to deliver a fiery monologue in which he urges his viewers, who are as angry and frustrated as he is, to stick their heads out their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

This is the most potent moment in “Network,” the prescient, Academy Award-winning 1976 film, written by Paddy Chayefsky, about a fictional last-place television station that has lost its moral compass and staked its future on a deranged anchorman named Howard Beale.

This scene is no less volatile in the stage adaptation of “Network,” which opens Dec. 6. Following its run last year at the National Theater in London, the production arrives in New York with a formidable pedigree: It is adapted from the movie by Lee Hall, the writer of “Billy Elliot,” and directed by Ivo van Hove, the experimental director of acclaimed Broadway revivals of “The Crucible” and “A View From the Bridge.”

Mr. Cranston, the combustible leading man of “Breaking Bad” and “All the Way,” stars as Beale, the frenetic broadcaster played in the film by Peter Finch. The cast also features Tony Goldwyn (“Scandal”) as Max Schumacher, the network’s demoralized news president, and Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) as Diana Christensen, an ambitious programming executive, characters played on screen by William Holden and Faye Dunaway.

If “Network” is to make good on this enviable roster, it must do more than re-enact famous scenes from a 42-year-old movie. The creators and performers of this stage version, set in the late 1970s of the film, believe they have found a compelling interpretation that they can make every bit as relevant to a contemporary audience.

Its story is not one that required any updating to resonate in the Trump era of alternative facts and fake news, but the play does not go out of its way to draw these parallels, either. Beyond its eerily accurate forecasting about the corporatization of news media and the degradation of truth, this “Network” has a timely and more fundamental message about the power of anger and what happens when society unleashes it en masse.

It just might not be the message that audiences expect, or one that its principal constituents see eye-to-eye on. They have been trying to discern its meaning since they staged it in London, and are still negotiating with the play and with each other, even as they fine-tune the production for Broadway.

As Mr. Cranston told me later, “Our society does not welcome the emotion of anger. It is not appropriate. And working on this made me realize: Why not? It’s a great motivator. It’s legitimate. Why is that not embraced as who we are?”

Earlier that Friday afternoon, the Belasco stage was a storm of humanity as Mr. van Hove oversaw his actors in a technical rehearsal. Two scenes were playing out simultaneously: Mr. Cranston was muttering in a mirror to an unseen figure while Ms. Maslany and Mr. Goldwyn were seducing each other over a night on the town.

All the while, their movements were being tracked by cameras — some overhead, some operated by people on stage with them — capable of displaying them on a giant screen that dominated the set. A persistent musical score gave the dueling scenes a propulsive beat while lights bathed them in a dark blue hue.

It is a markedly different approach — immersive and, by design, overwhelming — from the unobtrusive, naturalistic style that the director Sidney Lumet brought to the original film. “Network,” the motion picture, won four Academy Awards, including Oscars for Ms. Dunaway, Chayefsky and Finch, who died shortly after it opened.

For Chayefsky, the celebrated screenwriter of “Marty,” “The Hospital” and “The Americanization of Emily,” “Network” has come to be regarded as his magnum opus: a ferocious distillation of his fears about the dehumanizing authority of monolithic corporations and the mass media.

The character of Howard Beale — who is transformed into a populist sensation after he threatens to commit suicide on live television, and whose audience grows bigger and more fervent as his grasp on reality becomes more tenuous — remains his most famous creation.

“Network” scandalized the staid broadcast networks of Chayefsky’s day (in an era when there were only three to choose from) with its dire prognosis that factual reporting would eventually be made obsolete by splenetic appeals to emotion. He died in 1981, never seeing his most ominous predictions come true.

Mr. van Hove said he could still remember the feelings that “Network” left on him, when he saw the film as a teenager. “It was a very impressive movie,” he said, “but at the same time, it felt over-the-top: ‘This can never happen. This is total science fiction.’”

After reading Mr. Hall’s adaptation a few years ago, he came to a different conclusion: “I thought this science fiction has become our reality,” he said.

Mr. Hall, the British screenwriter and playwright, discovered “Network” while living in America in the 1990s and had wanted to bring it to the stage for nearly a decade. “I was looking to do something about the internet, how that was changing our news,” he said. “Then I realized Paddy had already written that play.”

“Network,” with its many long tirades and diatribes, didn’t require much intervention from an outside author. “I didn’t feel that it needed my voice,” Mr. Hall said. “Very, very, very, very few of the words are mine. Nearly everything comes from Paddy in one way or another.”

Mr. van Hove, who was approached by the National Theater to direct the play around 2013, said he saw “Network” as more than just another film-to-theater translation.

“It’s a tragedy about the loss of values,” said Mr. van Hove, whose recent works include the stage version of Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned” presented at the Park Avenue Armory this summer.

“All its relationships are scarred,” he said. “There’s not one relationship in it which is just O.K.”

He compared “Network” to the Arthur Miller dramas he has directed, which are “plays where individuals stand in opposition to society, and there’s a tension between the two.” In the case of “Network,” van Hove said, “It’s the fall, the rise and the fall of Howard Beale.”

He added, “Perhaps the satire is not the most important element. I had to make it into a harsh reality and, at the same time, keep it entertaining.”

Mr. van Hove and the production designer Jan Versweyveld, his frequent collaborator and personal partner, pored over the text of “Network.” Together they mapped out three sections of the stage, representing the various locations where all the action of the play takes place.

At center stage, they placed the desk where Beale delivers his increasingly unhinged jeremiads. On the left, a television control room where colleagues and executives monitor his actions and make their cynical decisions. On the right, an arrangement of tables, chairs and couches standing in for the bars and restaurants its characters visit.

They further populated the play’s world with omnipresent camerapeople and technicians, and they provided seats at their onstage restaurant where a few theatergoers at each show (who pay a premium for the privilege) can drink cocktails and eat a four-course meal curated by Bill Yosses, the former executive pastry chef of the White House.

The point of all this apparatus, Mr. van Hove and Mr. Versweyveld said, is to create a theatrical experience that is constantly in motion — the play is two hours long without an intermission — in which everyone is under observation and no one is told where to look. As they envision it, the boundary between what’s occurring on that giant screen and what is happening in reality should always be ambiguous.

The production still needed its Howard Beale, which it found in Mr. Cranston. At 62, he is two years older than Finch was when he played the part, though Mr. Cranston is hardly the fading lion the British actor had been. Mr. Cranston has won four Emmy Awards for his acting work on “Breaking Bad,” a Tony Award for “All the Way” and an Olivier Award for the London production of “Network.”

He is deliberate in his choices and confident when he reaches them. When it comes to the theater, Mr. Cranston told me, “I don’t believe in absolute blind reverence to the material. I just don’t. Because it is a performance art. It’s not a painting.” (This would not necessarily have endeared him to Chayefsky, who was a stickler for the written word.)

Mr. Cranston has already spent many months inhabiting Beale, and he said he had grown accustomed to the character’s arc, as he evolves from a bitter relic to a beloved articulator of public rage — and then, horrifically, into an anti-Arab, pro-corporate demagogue.

But within that trajectory, Mr. Cranston said he was still making discoveries about the play and his performance. He could never anticipate, from show to show, how he might deliver a monologue like the “mad as hell” speech, when Beale defiantly tells his audience he has no solutions for a world in which “we know things are bad — worse than bad, they’re crazy.”

“Sometimes that speech stays angry and gets [expletive] furious,” Mr. Cranston said. “Sometimes it takes me to a place where I’m weeping, and I’m so hurt and damaged and broken. I don’t really know from time to time, and that’s great. That’s where it should live.”

TV screens display vintage news broadcasts and commercials to underscore the play’s setting in the ’70s. Even so, the new members of its Broadway cast are still grappling with their characters, trying to play their roles as written while attuning their performances to modern-day standards and principles.

Ms. Maslany said that she shared a concern expressed by several critics of “Network,” who feel that the role of Diana — as written by Chayefsky, a relentlessly driven woman in a male-dominated industry — didn’t subvert gender stereotypes as much as provide a different caricature of a ruthlessly calculating female professional.

As far as Diana’s aspirations are concerned, Ms. Maslany said, “I don’t judge that hunger. I understand it as an artist. I understand it as a young woman. I know what it’s like to try to carve out space for my voice.”

Ms. Maslany said there had been discussions about excising a notorious line in which Diana describes herself as having a “masculine temperament” because, she says, “I arouse quickly, consummate prematurely and can’t wait to get my clothes back on and get out of that bedroom.” (A press representative for the production said this scene was cut “not because Diana is candid about her sexual temperament, but because of the way the scenes run together with some other changes.”)

“There is a vilification of her that I don’t completely get,” Ms. Maslany said. “Everyone else in the play is doing the same thing she’s doing. They just happen to be men.”

Mr. Goldwyn, who is 58, was reckoning with the fact that he is the same age Holden was when he played Max Schumacher, a fading character learning to embrace his status as a “craggy, middle-aged man.”

“I feel a little youthful for the character, in terms of my orientation toward life,” Mr. Goldwyn said. “He seemed so much older. A guy in his 50s in 1976 was a lot older than a guy in his 50s in 2018.”

As Mr. Goldwyn saw it, the events of recent years had made the message of “Network” crystal clear.

“Anger has become the dominant force in our political dialogue and, as result, in our media dialogue,” he said. “I don’t know which came first, but now it’s all gone on steroids.”

But Mr. Hall suggested that the play offered a different lesson, “about the danger of absolute beliefs — the danger of any kind of fundamentalism,” he said.

To make that point, Mr. Hall said the play had to end with Beale undergoing “a moment of anagnorisis” — some final realization about the truth of his experience. But what should that realization be? This took a few tries to figure out.

In one scenario he contemplated, Mr. Hall said, “The last speech was going to be him, resigning on air, properly, and saying where he’s gone wrong.” He quickly added, “We didn’t do it that way.”

For obvious reasons, Mr. Hall was reluctant to reveal the exact conclusion of “Network,” but he credited its outcome to Mr. van Hove.

As Mr. Hall explained, “He kept on saying to me and Bryan, ‘I can’t describe it. I just have to do it. You’ll have to trust me.’ I can see why he couldn’t describe it, because it’s a theatrical trick. But it tries to end on a reflective note.”

Mr. van Hove, too, was cagey about specifics, but he argued that his “Network” could strike an uplifting tone — perhaps not by providing a traditional happy ending, but by suggesting the possibility that things will not always be the way they are.

“I’m an optimist, but not in a stupid way,” he said. “I’m not like, oh, we’re all doomed. Perhaps we’ve destroyed the world at this moment, in a certain way. But I see things on a larger scale.”

Change, restoration and a return to compassion are all possible, Mr. van Hove said — just maybe not as quickly as we would all like it. “At the end of the ice age, there was suddenly one little flower that came out of the ice, and then there’s life again,” he said. “But it takes some time.”

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