Net­work on Broad­way

The chill­ingly prophetic 1970s film Net­work has been adapted for Broad­way—and the tim­ing couldn’t be bet­ter

Newsweek - - Contents - BY ANNA MENTA @an­nalikest­weets

in 1976, when movie au­di­ences watched Paddy Chayef­sky’s dark com­edy Net­work, they laughed. When play­wright Lee Hall re­watched the film in 2008, he cringed. “What Paddy pre­dicted as mad satire in 1976 is doc­u­men­tary re­al­ism in our age,” he tells Newsweek. “Week by week it be­comes more rel­e­vant.”

Chayef­sky, who won an Os­car for his screen­play and died in 1981, was al­ready not­ing the di­min­ish­ing dis­tinc­tions be­tween TV news and en­ter­tain­ment, and the omi­nous abil­ity of the medium to har­ness pop­u­lar rage. The Bri­tish Hall, best known for the 2000 screen­play for Billy El­liot as well as its Tony-win­ning mu­si­cal adap­tion, rec­og­nized not only Chayef­sky’s eerie pre­science but also “a very ro­bust piece of dra­matic lit­er­a­ture—in the same tra­di­tion as Arthur Miller.

“My job,” Hall adds, “was to do key­hole surgery and usher the story into a new for­mat with­out do­ing too much dam­age to an al­ready bril­liant script.”

It would be hard to im­prove upon. The screen­play was voted the eighth great­est in the his­tory of cin­ema by the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­ica in 2005, and the film—di­rected with scathing pre­ci­sion by Sid­ney Lumet—ranked 64th on the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute’s 100 great­est Amer­i­can films list in 2007. The story cen­ters on Howard Beale, an ag­ing, al­co­holic news­caster (played by Peter Finch, who died shortly af­ter pro­duc­tion, win­ning a post­hu­mous Os­car for the role). Af­ter he’s fired from the fic­tional UBS net­work, he an­nounces plans to kill him­self on his fi­nal broad­cast—at­tract­ing record num­bers of view­ers to the rat­ings-chal­lenged net­work. Rather than send him to ther­apy, a cut­throat ex­ec­u­tive, Diana Chris­tensen (Faye Du­n­away), of­fers Beale his own show. Thus is born his and Net­work’s in­fa­mous mantra: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not go­ing to take this any­more!”

The stage adap­tion, which de­buted at Lon­don’s Na­tional Theatre last year, be­gins its 18-week Broad­way run on De­cem­ber 6. Break­ing Bad’s Bryan Cranston re­turns as Beale (fol­low­ing rave re­views and an Olivier Award); Ta­tiana Maslany, the Emmy-win­ning star of Or­phan Black, makes her Broad­way de­but as Chris­tensen. Ivo van Hove di­rects, amp­ing the vis­ceral anx­i­ety with a crowded news­room set and with a cam­era crew cir­cling Beale like vul­tures, pro­ject­ing his ev­ery melt­down on 20-foot-screens.

But if you’re ex­pect­ing an up­date, ac­ces­sorized with so­cial me­dia and crowds of Maga-hat­ted, mad-as-hell Trump fans, you’ll be dis­ap­pointed. The play re­mains in the 1970s, with vir­tu­ally no up­dat­ing. “We wanted to al­low the au­di­ence to make their own con­nec­tions,” says Hall. “It didn’t need to be about Twit­ter and mo­bile phones, be­cause the prob­lems of 1976 are the same as to­day: the net­work of cap­i­tal­ism, glob­al­iza­tion and cor­po­rate pol­i­tics.”

That said, you’ll need the salary of a cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive to pay for the $399 seats that van Hove has placed on the stage (the price comes with din­ner and drinks). The di­rec­tor had on­stage seat­ing for his Tony-win­ning pro­duc­tion of A View From the Bridge as well, but in this case the ges­ture is in­tended as a com­men­tary on the com­plicit role of the watcher. “As a play­wright, I was kind of hor­ri­fied when I heard this might hap­pen, but Ivo said, ‘Trust me,’ and he’s com­pletely right,” says Hall. “He’s found a beau­ti­ful metaphor for how we watch. It’s in­ter­est­ing to see some­body sit­ting on a seat, hav­ing a meal, watch­ing a pro­jec­tion of Cranston, rather than watch­ing the real Cranston, who’s stand­ing right in front of them.”

Even the world events in­cluded in Chayef­sky’s script were oddly prophetic, like ref­er­ences to Saudi Ara­bia. “I had con­sid­ered chang­ing that to some­thing more rel­e­vant for Broad­way. I hadn’t got­ten around to it, and then…i mean, have you read the news? Now peo­ple will prob­a­bly think I put that in!”

For the most part, Hall’s changes to the orig­i­nal script were struc­tural. In the film’s sec­ond half, the fo­cus shifts from Beale to his friend and boss, Max Schu­macher (Wil­liam Holden). Hall felt that was “a strange move, dra­mat­i­cally, es­pe­cially for the­ater.”

And by keep­ing the fo­cus on Beale, Hall was able to mit­i­gate the film’s misog­yny. Thanks to Du­n­away, who also won an Os­car for her per­for­mance—one that swings stylishly be­tween sen­su­al­ity and ab­sur­dity— you can’t help but love Chris­tensen even as you hate what she stands for. But this was the ’70s, when strong women still had to get their come­up­pance. (Lumet re­port­edly told Du­n­away that he would edit out any at­tempts to make her char­ac­ter more sym­pa­thetic or vul­ner­a­ble.) In the end, she’s put in her place by the hon­or­able

Schu­macher—af­ter, of course, he ditches his wife and kids to sleep with her. Schu­macher ul­ti­mately dis­misses Chris­tensen as part of the gen­er­a­tion that “learned life from Bugs Bunny.”

“Watch­ing the film, in ret­ro­spect, it feels dif­fer­ent, to see this pow­er­ful, cre­ative young woman ques­tion­ing the com­pla­cency of a gen­er­a­tion of men who had it easy,” says Hall. “Ta­tiana [Maslany] em­braces Diana’s power.”

“I don’t think her in­ten­tions are bad,” says Maslany of Chris­tensen. “She just deeply wants some­thing, and she’s un­apolo­getic about it.”

If the film has a flaw, it’s Schu­macher’s oddly sin­cere love for Chris­tensen, a weak­ness crit­ics noted in 1976. “I don’t know what he ex­pects of her,” says Maslany with a laugh. “I’d love to know that!” In Chayef­sky’s script, Schu­macher con­fronts her

self­ish­ness, and “what I love about that mo­ment,” says Maslany, “is that Diana fails to up­hold what she’s ex­pected to be. She doesn’t say, ‘Love me de­spite all my shit.’ She says, ‘I can’t love you. I don’t know how to do that.’ It’s the op­po­site of what we ex­pect of a woman on screen.”

There is, of course, the irony now of Schu­macher (played by Tony Gold­wyn on Broad­way) chid­ing “the tele­vi­sion gen­er­a­tion” at a time when Face­book al­go­rithms have jour­nal­ists feel­ing nos­tal­gic for CNN—A point not lost on Hall. “The ca­ble-tv era was some­thing to be hor­ri­fied by,” he says. “But as we’re find­ing with so­cial me­dia, the prob­lem is not the tech­nol­ogy, it’s the cor­po­rate struc­ture un­der­neath.”

At one point in the show, sur­round­ing char­ac­ters de­scribe Beale as an “an­gry prophet, de­nounc­ing the hypocrisy of our times,” and “a man­i­festly ir­re­spon­si­ble man on TV.” Hall hopes the au­di­ence won’t leap to ob­vi­ous con­clu­sions. “Beale isn’t Trump,” he says. “He’s an or­di­nary man who falls into the trap of anger and is ma­nip­u­lated by the very forces that have pro­voked his anger in the first place. We all feel like Howard Beale, but therein lies the trap, be­cause how we feel— an­gry—is not a so­lu­tion. In the end, Howard ex­ploits him­self. That’s the real story of Net­work.”

Still, Hall does tack on a fi­nal mo­ment that is squarely aimed at our times. The film’s Beale never learns the lim­its of anger; he’s mur­dered on cam­era af­ter pub­licly crit­i­ciz­ing USB spon­sors. On Broad­way, he gets a post­hu­mous re­join­der: “The real truth, the thing we must be afraid of, is the de­struc­tive power of ab­so­lute be­liefs.”

“It didn’t need to be about Twit­ter and mo­bile phones, be­cause the prob­lems of 1976 are the same prob­lems we have to­day.”

ANGER MAN­AGE­MENT Cranston as Beale, a char­ac­ter cre­ated by the late Paddy Chayef­sky.

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