Paddy Chayefsky’s celebrated screenplay is given a minor massage by playwright Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot the Musical”) and dolled up with all sorts of distracting gadgetry by that maestro of fancy doodads, director Ivo van Hove. But the fundamental dilemma that satires such as “Network” often face — of time having passed them by — can’t be zapped away by latter-day technical wizardry and a wall of video screens.
One of the weird disconnects of this Broadway production, which had its official opening Thursday at the Belasco Theatre, after debuting at London’s National Theatre in fall 2017, is in the odd deployment of anachronism. The events of “Network” are plainly anchored in 1975 — and the tale of a TV newsman reborn as a crazed prophet who strikes ratings gold — but the devices decking out the stage in Jan Versweyveld’s busy set design are circa 2018. And dropped into the ’70s dialogue are references to 21st-century media fixtures, such as Google.
Maybe one of Hall’s and van Hove’s points is that Chayefsky’s jeremiad 40 years ago against the corporate corruption of the country remains valid. But the manner in which the show keeps shouting “relevance!” feels obvious and even patronizing. “Yeah, we know,” you’ll think to yourself continually over the course of two intermission-less hours.
Add to this the purple locutions of Chayefsky/Hall’s characters, and you come away with too strong a sense of an antique being dusted off for modern consumption. “I am a man going through primal doubts, and you have to deal with it,” news division head Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn), Howard’s best friend, says pompously to the craven programming chief, Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany). “ . . . You can’t switch to another station.”
Van Hove and Versweyveld do furnish the stage with eye-catching delights. (There’s even a full-service restaurant, called “Foodwork,” stage left.) It’s fun to take in the spectacle of Howard’s transformation into a ranting soothsayer, inveighing against materialism and corporate greed, amid the studio’s buzzing forest of technology. One of the play’s multiple themes is how we’re controlled by TV and the other gizmos we’ve created. The fact that, at times, van Hove forces our eye toward the screens, even when humans are standing front and center before us, is one of the production’s better jokes.
But Cranston is the only human in a cast 23 strong with any power to move us. And what an all-in, red-meat performance it is. His Howard is thrust into the pivot point of the story, a position that Peter Finch in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Howard was not quite allowed to occupy.
Cranston is given the freedom to make Howard Lear-like in his departure from sanity. He even gets a Lear-on-the-Heath moment, in an extraordinary version of the scene in which Howard, now completely unhinged, implores his viewers to get up from their chairs and shout from their windows, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” That he is so splendid at whipping himself into a frenzy is the production’s saving grace. Because it’s the closest an audience gets, on an underwhelming evening, to feeling anything at all.
Network, adapted by Lee Hall, based on the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Sets and lighting, Jan Versweyveld.About 2 hours. $59-$399. At Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., New York. telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.