A tediously timely ‘Network’

In Ivo van Hove’s new Broadway production of “Network,” frantic stagecraft whirls with clamoring bodies in a dance of hectoring topicality. 

Multiple technicians wield video cameras, roving the stage, filling television screens small and large around the theater. Actors coax “live-studio-audience” applause from the crowd and demand that we bellow, not once but several times, that brimstone incantation: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Led by Bryan Cranston’s bristling performance, there’s a lot to take in visually, if not intellectually. It’s all very slick, stylish and duly explosive. It’s a bombastic mediocrity. 

Unlike Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, written with literary panache by Paddy Chayefsky, this “Network” — adapted both too faithfully and too diffusely by Lee Hall — lacks the  prescience about corporate greed and TV’s noxious influence. We know all that now. We’re living it. It makes this adamant version too on the nose. It brays to the choir.  

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But there is Cranston. As Howard Beale — crusty anchorman-turned frothing oracular madman-turned vitriolic TV commentator — the actor is a one-man brush fire. His fed-up Beale, who declares he’s going to kill himself on air, becomes, in the words of one of his venal bosses, “a latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times.”

In one blazing scene, Cranston cracks. Sara Holdren at vulture.com describes it with zest: 

“Cranston’s disintegration is a hell of a thing to watch, especially in the excruciating moments of silence before Beale launches into his first famous tirade. With a camera up in his face and that face looming, distorted with pain, up on the set’s back wall, Cranston stumbles and sways, squinting through tears and groping to pull the scattering fragments of his brain back together.”

All well and good, and Cranston veers to greatness. The rest of the cast — chiefly Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) and Tony Goldwyn (“Scandal”) — is serviceable. No one stands out, meaning Cranston carries the lurching show, which never stops groping for to-the-minute provocation.

What really hobbles things, though, is a story diluted with redundancies and non-essential scenes. Goldwyn’s moments of midlife melodrama await merciful amputations.

Yet it might be argued that this “Network” is a raucous, rousing, gimmicky divertissement by master showman van Hove (2016’s knockout “A View from the Bridge”). He pulls many effective flourishes from his bag of tricks.

But van Hove underscores the text’s topicality with a crowd-pleasing urgency. The show is timely, perhaps too timely. By the end, this Beale reaches a point of clanging didacticism and facile relevance that’s tiresome for all its exertion. You yawn instead of wince.

Playing Broadway’s Belasco Theater. Details here

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