Through lens of greed, bro­ken mis­sion

Bryan Cranston is the ex­plo­sive an­chor who isn’t go­ing to take it

The Capital - - HOMES SALES - By Chris Jones and “Net­work” plays at the Be­lasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit Net­workBroad­way.com Chris Jones is a Tri­bune critic. [email protected]­bune.com

Amer­i­cans were mad as hell and not go­ing to take it any­more in 1976. And — take a look out­side your win­dow — they’re still mad as hell and not go­ing to take it any­more in 2018. But the pre­science and stay­ing power of Paddy Chayef­sky’s screen­play for “Net­work” — now adapted by Lee Hall into a tense, thrilling, high-tech Broad­way play star­ring the craggy Bryan Cranston at his with­er­ing peak — lies in how bril­liantly it cap­tured how much eas­ier it is to be an­gry than to ar­tic­u­late the cause.

Howard Beale, the de­ranged an­chor­man who se­duces net­work suits with his cathar­tic, rat­ings­grab­bing, howled-from-the-gut catch­phrase, even as he de­scends fur­ther and fur­ther into on-air mad­ness, never de­fines that lit­tle dan­gling pro­noun. We all wake up some morn­ings know­ing we can’t take it any­more. Trou­ble is, we usu­ally can’t de­fine the “it,” let alone come up with a fix.

That’s be­cause it’s the hu­man con­di­tion, peo­ple! The ex­is­ten­tial malaise! Cry it out, scream it from the rooftops, have an­other drink and then go buy some neat stuff! Click­ety-click.

That’s Amer­ica, then and now. As “Net­work” un­der­stands bet­ter than any other cur­rent show in New York City.

In the pre-Fox News 1970s, direc­tor Sid­ney Lumet’s Os­car­win­ning movie was rightly seen as a par­ody of how the news me­dia were re­treat­ing from their moral mis­sion in fa­vor of mar­ket share, the 1970s equiv­a­lent of click­bait. When evening news­caster Beale (Cranston) first re­veals his sui­ci­dal ten­den­cies in a na­tional, on-air melt­down, his pompous bosses re­coil in hor­ror — but only un­til they see how many peo­ple are watch­ing. When the greedy net­work suits re­al­ize that the front page of that day’s Daily News sud­denly is all Beale cov­er­age, the sharper minds quickly fig­ure out they’ve got a lu­cra­tive pop­ulist on their hands, they ditch all that costly cov­er­age of the world at large and give Beale, the crazy prophet spout­ing apoc­a­lyp­tic non­sense, as many mi­cro­phones as they can find.

For those of us of a cer­tain age, to watch direc­tor Ivo van Hove’s pro­duc­tion — the sto­ry­telling takes place in part on a slew of screens through­out the the­ater — is to mut­ter to our­selves about how on earth wily old Paddy C (he died in 1981) knew so well what was com­ing. Ev­ery­thing the movie pre­dicted, like, hap­pened. And that’s why it no longer plays as a satire of greedy ex­ec­u­tives and facile fools but as a gut-wrench­ing moral­ity play about how cap­i­tal­ists — and their sad-eyed hu­man tools — de­stroyed most of the real news. And they did so mostly by tap­ping into a sin­gle hu­man con­stant — anger at the un­change­able un­fair­ness of the world. Beale, Alex Jones, Sean Han­nity. Only the names change. Not the feel­ings tapped.

Hyp­notic through­out, Cranston has some truly stun­ning mo­ments in a role in which he is ideally cast: The “Break­ing Bad” star is im­pos­ing and au­thor­i­ta­tive enough to make Beale’s power and po­tency ut­terly cred­i­ble, but suf­fi­ciently hag­gard to also feel like one of those worn-out tramps in Sa­muel Beck­ett’s “Wait­ing for Godot.” He’s ac­ces­si­ble in his agony but also ter­ri­fy­ing in his re­move from the quo­tid­ian: If the per­ils of life get him, you shud­der, God only knows what it has in store for me.

The cen­tral di­rec­to­rial con­ceit of “Net­work” — that the story is told through a plethora of greedy lenses — is a mea­sure, of course, of van Hove’s ge­nius. The aes­thetic, de­signed by van Hove’s part­ner Jan Ver­sweyveld, is rooted in the 1970s but not stuck there, al­low­ing the ideas in the piece, which is a fancy way of say­ing its fo­cus on life’s hor­rors, to cas­cade down over the in­ter­ven­ing years. When­ever we’re in the stu­dio — one of those places where antlike hu­mans run around to try and calm their in­ner feel­ings of dread — the show is on fire.

Not all of the per­sonal scenes are as strong as Cranston’s as­ton­ish solo spots. Ta­tiana Maslany is surely cred­i­ble as a mer­cu­rial TV exec will­ing to dive low for rat­ings, but she’s un­change­able and thus in­ac­ces­si­ble when it comes to the deeper themes of the piece. Tony Gold­wyn works bet­ter — you can read the pain on his face — but he’s too ten­ta­tive, es­pe­cially as com­pared with Wil­liam Holden in the movie, mean­ing that Cranston and Maslany can run for their touch­down into lu­cra­tive insanity with too few old-school lineback­ers in their faces, es­pe­cially since Joshua Boone, play­ing a role made fa­mous by Robert Du­vall, feels un­cer­tain, too. But there’s one blis­ter­ing ex­cep­tion: a scene be­tween Gold­wyn’s Max Schu­macher and the su­perb ac­tress Alyssa Bres­na­han, who plays Max’s wife, Louise. It’s a killer con­fronta­tion, in­stantly rec­og­niz­able to any­one with a ring on their fin­ger and a re­minder of the hu­man cost of go­ing rogue.

But while you might wish for more depth in some scenes, that’s just not the point of the pro­duc­tion, which ar­rives af­ter suc­cess at Lon­don’s Na­tional Theatre. This is one pro­foundly clever show, the rare con­cep­tual mas­ter­work that puts all the cur­rent rail­ing against fake news and cheap net­work the­atrics in a much broader tem­po­ral con­text. If you feel like we’re all mad in hell, here’s the show that re­minds you it was ever thus, suck­ers.

JAN VER­SWEYVELD PHOTO

Bryan Cranston, cen­ter, Tony Gold­wyn, right, and the cast of “Net­work” on Broad­way at the Be­lasco Theatre.

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