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A CurtainUp Review

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like at this moment to announce that I will be retiring from this program in two weeks time because of poor ratings. But since this show was the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself. I'm going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. So tune in next Monday. That'll give the public relations people a week to promote the show. It ought to get a hell of a rating.
—Howard Beale. The Walter Cronkite-like newsman's announcement that sets in motion the news media's exploitation of Beale's mental collapse in full view of an audience hungry for news as more sensational and entertaining actually begins as a joke during a scene in which he and his longtime friend and newsroom boss Max Schumacher are having drinks trying to deal with Beale's despair that even his friend couldn't save the job that was his whole life.
Bryan Cranston (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)a
Peter Finch won an Oscar for his portrayal of Howard Beale, an aging anchorman at a struggling TV station in Paddy Chayefky's 1976 film Network that also nabbed a best screen play Oscar. Beale's decision to literally go out with a bang by killing himself on the air, actually made him a star of the media world's response to the public's hunger for more sensational infotainment style news. Instead of providing the mentally unhinged Beale with the help he needed, the network allowed their ambitious programming executive, Diana Christensen, to blend news with reality show pzazz with Beale's most famous angry rant "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" as its introductory theme song.

Now Chayefsky's satiric spin on the media's shameless surrender to bottom line dictated corporate rule is back. Chayefsky and Finch are long gone, but Howard Beale is ranting and raving again, but he's now live on Broadway and Bryan Cranston's Beale is mesmerizing.

His portrayal of Beale, makes Cranston a sure-fire candidate for another best acting Tony (He won a Tony as well as a bunch of other awards for his take on Lyndon Johnson in All the Way. But with wunderkind director Ivo Van Hove and his team of avant-gardists providing the audience with Cranston in filmic close-ups on screens placed throughout the Belasco, even for those sitting in the second balcony, he should win an Oscar as well since this is an experience that criss-crosses between a live theater and movie experience. Cranson's delivery of the famous "I'm mad as hell" rant has the grandeur f Shakespeare's King Lear so it's spellbinding to see him in on-screen close-up as well as physically on stage.

Chayefsky's send-up of television and the American zeitgeist generally 43 years ago has proved to be more than prescient. There's more to be mad as hell about than ever in this world of twitter-driven politics. So much so that its satiric humor is now a grim parallel of the real aftermath emanating daily from the White House, Fox News, President Trump's twitter posts, and the journalists on other networks boosting their ratings with their outraged pontificating.

Lee Hall's stage script has preserved the smart dialogue and story telling that made Chayefsky a major force during television's golden years of producing well written, meaningful teleplays. However, the nips and tucks have shifted the focus to make this all about Cranston's Howard Beale, since that's who's selling most of the tickets to this Network. Tony Goldwyn's Schumacher, Tatiana Maslany's Diana Christensen and, especially Alyssa Bresnahan's as Schumacher's wife, strictly Cranston's satellites, some of their scenes more like filler material than a substantial part of the plot.

Joshua Boone is smartly cast as the male villain Frank Hackett, as is Ron Canada as the more honorable studio head Edward Ruddy.

Chayefsky was so revered that he had full control of how his work would be filmed, which included choosing the director. According on a chapter about Network in Shaun Considine's biography, Mad as Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky, he hated director driven theater and chose Sidney Lumet as someone he felt he could trust to be true to his vision for the film —rightly so. Indeed his subtle direction allowed all the film's issues and energies to exist and his actors to give full-bodied performances without Network coming off as a director's picture.

I think if Chayefsky were still with us, he'd accept Bryan Cranston's Beale and some of the casting choices. He might even allow that it could use a coda but it's too bad it isn't written by him. Most of all, however, he'd be mad as hell to see wunderkind director Ivo Van Hove and his set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld overly busy staging.

While Cranston and not Van Hove are the main reason to buy a ticket, Van Hove and Versweyveld's production certainly makes for an interesting and in many ways exciting and effective experience. The stage is partitioned with the center section where most of the action takes place flanked at the left by a technician filled glass-encased control room and at the right a section for audience members paying a hefty extra price to dine and watch. Dominating it all are those screens all over the place as well as on stage.

There's no denying that Van Hove does have a way of adding sizzle and now-ness to everything he does. But he has gone way overboard with this insistently immersive presentation. Why in the world does he have a group of well-muscled actors spend the half hour after the doors open and before the play starts doing yoga on stage? And what does the on stage seating being converted into a restaurant do other than distract?

While Cranston's performance and the admittedly diverting staging makes for an entertaining two hours of theater, Amazon Prime and YouTube have provided viewers with a golden opportunity: to see both Network, the trendy new stage adaptation and Network, the somewhat dated but still superbly original and watchable film.

Ageism, slavish action according to Nielsen ratings, revolutionary ripoffs, citizens needing a wake-up call to not take it any more. . .Paddy Chayefsky had so much to say. Too bad he didn't live long enough to keep being so entertainingly mad as hell.

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Adapted by Lee Hall from the film by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Ivo Van Hove
Cast: Bryan Cranston stars as as Howard Beale, Barzin Akhavan (Jack Snowden/Warm-Up Guy)Joshua Boone (Frank Hackett(, Alyssa Bresnahan (Louise Schumacher(Tatiana Maslany (Diana Christensen),Ron Canada (Edward Ruddy) Tony Goldwyn (Max Schumacherb), Julian Elijah Martinez (Harry Hunter),Nick Wyman (Arthur Jensen), Susannah Perkins (Schlesinger), Nicole Villamil (Sheila) Frank Wood (Nelson Chaney)
Music by Eric Sleichim
Scenic and Lighting design by Jan Versweyveld Video design by Tal Yarden
Music and sound by Eric Sleichim
Production Stage Manager: Timothy R. Semon
Running Time: 2 hours, no intermission
Belasco Theater 111 W. 44th Street
The Natioan Theater stage version of the Academy award winning film by Paddy Chayefsky comes to Broadway. From 11/10/18; opening 12/06/18; closing 3/24/19--extended to 4/28/19.

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