Home Theater Bryan Cranston Gives a Once-in-a-Lifetime Performance in “Network,” A Play That Predicted...

Sidney Aaron “Paddy” Chayefsky’s greatest work was “Network,” a screenplay for a movie that predicted Fox News twenty years before it happened. Chayefsky– who died in 1981 at age 58– wrote “Network” in 1974. It shot in 1975 was released in 1976. It won four Oscars, including Best Actor ({Peter Finch), Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight), and Best Screenplay (Chayefsky). Director Sidney Lumet was nominated for Best Director.

Two decades later, Fox News launched as opinion news run by celebrity newscasters who ranted and raved. Chayefsky foreshadowed Hannity, O’Reilly and the rest of the jackals at Fox News with Howard Beale, a middle aged nut who had a nervous breakdown on live on the air and promised to commit suicide. Beale’s mental illness was exploited by network executives, and led to his murder, also live on the air.

Now Bryan Cranston, of “Breaking Bad” fame, who’s already got a Tony award for playing LBJ in “All the Way,” gives the performance of a lifetime as Beale, elaborating and enriching Finch’s screen take. Cranston won the Olivier Award in London last March for playing Beale. Now, if he stays a bit, he’ll win another Tony Award. He is simply astounding, drawing out Beale’s anger and pathos, his role as a visionary who sees the whole thing in front of him. Howard Beale essentially leaves the blueprints for Roger Ailes of what is to come.

Ivo van Hove stages “Network” busily. On stage left (our right), theatergoers are actually eating dinner, real food, served by waiters, as an audience-in-an-audience. You pay extra for this with your ticket. Some of the play then takes place in this faux functioning restaurant. (I asked everyone, no one knows why van Hove has done this.)

Some of “Network” goes outside onto West 44th St. in front of the Belasco Theater, where co-stars Tony Goldwyn and Tatiana Maslany– who are terrific–  take a stroll mid show. I mean this is really happening, they go on the sidewalk at every performance with a cameraman and we see it on a video screen.  Pedestrians– true New Yorkers– are walking by in both directions. They are unfazed. It is really weird and wonderful.

Back on stage, there is a huge video screen, more screens, commercials from 1976 running on screens in the background. I found them distracting, although you do learn that a year before Roy Scheider starred in “Jaws” he made a Folgers commercial. Cameraman are broadcasting Beale’s show. Chayefsky’s UBS Network presaged CNN and Fox and all-news networks. Chayefsky could not have been more prescient about the carnival our lives would become.

There is so much going on onstage that it can be dizzying. But Cranston, as Beale, who’s supposedly unwinding into madness, is the sane center. At one point he also breaks the fourth wall, comes down and sits on the lip of the stage. Then he sits down between two theatergoers in the first row and improvises his own dialogue. I asked Bryan about this on Wednesday night. He told me it’s all ad-libbed. “I look forward to that bit every night.” On Wednesday– as Beale– he asked two ladies if their stash of candy indicated onset diabetes. The whole theater roared with laughter.

The producers and publicists didn’t want press on their opening night, which is why I can’t tell you anything about what happened Thursday. Some kind of paranoia. But they had nothing to fear. “Network” is already sold out for its limited run. They will have to try and extend. Everyone in the show is top notch. Maslany is earthier than Faye Dunaway. She’s more like a horny, aggressive version of Holly Hunter’s character in “Broadcast News.” Goldwyn has the suave mien of William Holden from the movie. His “Scandal” fans will be more than pleased when he and Maslany go for it big time in the faux restaurant.

So kudos to “Network.” If only Chayefsky had lived longer, maybe he could have also stopped Fox News, Morton Downey Jr. and all the terrors he saw in his crystal ball.

 

 

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