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'Network' review: Bryan Cranston is intense as hell

Bryan Cranston stars as unhinged newsman Howard Beale

Bryan Cranston stars as unhinged newsman Howard Beale in "Network." Photo Credit: Jan Versweyveld

WHAT "Network"

WHERE Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.

INFO From $49; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE A thrilling, hyperactive take on the Oscar-winning 1976 film

If I'm suddenly diagnosed with adult-onset attention deficit disorder, "Network" will be to blame. The stage version of the prophetic 1976 Oscar-winning film at the Belasco Theatre comes at you in a thrilling blaze of politically charged hyperactivity.
Things are underway the moment the audience enters: Cast members dash about the onstage TV studio, making it hard to know where to look as multiple monitors flash the countdown, technicians position equipment and drinks are served in the stage right "restaurant" where top-price ticket holders will dine during the show. And is that Bryan Cranston in the makeup chair?
Before you can figure anything out, the background music crescendos and the play takes off. Yes, that was Cranston, taking his seat at the news desk to play with intense ferocity the unraveling anchorman Howard Beale. His ratings have tanked to the point that his friend and boss Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn, trying but not quite matching Cranston's intensity) is forced to fire him.
Lee Hall's theatrical adaptation sticks closely to Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay, though there’s less of the secondary love story between Max and producer Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany, strong but no Faye Dunaway). The couple does get one R-rated love scene, played in the restaurant, where an obviously shocked audience member close to the action appeared ready to lose her lunch. 


The play remains an indictment of the commercialism that drives television, with its emphasis on ratings and reliance on corporate support, messages that resonate so clearly today as the play hits on Russian influence (big crowd reaction) and Arab interference. It all leads to an unhinged Beale giving that famous "mad as hell" speech, and Cranston is masterful in his raw depiction of a man coming apart before your eyes (though repeated attempts to get the audience to shout out the cri de coeur quickly become tiresome). 

With the always unpredictable director Ivo van Hove in charge, it's an electric staging, if tough to follow as the frenetic activity on Jan Versweyveld's set jumps from center stage to the wings to the street in front of the theater (handheld cameras allow you to follow on the closest monitor). And it all gets too preachy at times, whenever Beale and corporate bigwigs get overly involved with their proselytizing.

But the real message comes post curtain call when an epilogue involving recent presidential inaugurations sends the play squarely into the political arena. Let's just say it becomes quite clear why people behind this production believe we should all start screaming "we're not gonna take it anymore." Perhaps via Twitter.

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