In my many years in New York, taking in a few dozen plays on Broadway, I recently witnessed the most gripping, emotionally rewarding performance of my entire life. Too bad it ended with an anti-Trump cheap shot. Or was it?
Broadway, ever shameless in its proclivity for retreading old fare, is staging a new theater version of the Seventies film, “Network.” Bryan Cranston, the iconic actor from “Breaking Bad,” deeply inhabits the role of anchorman Howard Beale, the embodiment of outrage and depression over the sad, harried state of the modern world.
Cue meme: We’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore!
The forty-year-old story is eerily apt for these fraught and fractious days of ill-tempered tweets, reality TV, Russia-gate, Antifa attacks, shrillness from all sides and unending vitriol spewed by legions of embittered protesters who despise President Trump.
Given this din of incivility, a new play might be a welcome escape. “Network,” the movie, came out in 1976, directed by Sidney Lumet. The Paddy Chayefsky-penned sendup of TV portrays an anchorman gone mad, who, after getting fired for declining ratings, announces on-air that he will kill himself, live and in dying color, on the broadcast in a few days. His ratings soar. Good times!
The film starred Peter Finch in the anchorman role and William Holden as his producer. On Broadway, the Holden role is filled by Tony Goldwyn, the smarmy bad guy opposite Patrick Swayze in “Ghost”; the fabulous Faye Dunaway’s role is well played by Tatiana Maslany from the TV series “Orphan Black.”
In the play, the set teems with busy actors, loud and splashy special effects, live steadicam shots and thrumming video screens of various sizes. All of it is blown off the stage by the only thing the audience can see: Bryan Cranston, on the edge. Even an afternoon practice “preview” performance ran a pricey $364.50 for two tickets, yet he makes the price well worth it.
In a matinee I attended some weeks ago, Mr. Cranston held forth with a dead-on delivery as an anchor who gets fired (given my view as, um, an anchor who got fired). He made even his co-stars mist up in the moment. His culminating “mad as hell” harangue, a proclamation of hurt and unsalvageable despair that all is lost and the world has gone mad, is so palpable and heartfelt it had us unable to choke off our tears. This was a moment to hold on to forever.
And they just had to ruin it, didn’t they? The play is unstintingly faithful to the film up to the very end, and then comes a sharp, slanted departure. In the movie, the President barely is mentioned, and America’s ennui is a product of soaring unemployment, rampant inflation, an OPEC oil embargo and a crisis in spirit. On Broadway, the ills of today seem to be the fault of … President Trump.
The movie ends with four TV-screen newsfeeds reporting Beale’s final downfall. Whereas the play ends with a video montage on the giant screen over center-stage, showing newly elected Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (R.I.P.), Clinton and Son of Bush taking the oath of office. Then comes the clincher: Barrack Obama, and the theater rumbles with thunderous applause and cheers, followed by Donald Trump. Cue gales of loud, scornful boos and jeers.
Too easy. The producers knew that would happen: Manhattan voted 86.6% for Hillary Clinton. Just one big misfire in this cheap shot, though. Again and again, Howard Beale laments soaring joblessness and millions of struggling, idled workers—and in the two years of Trump, job creation is at an all-time high, and unemployment is near all-time lows. Wages are rising and stock prices have soared.
We’re delighted as hell, and we look forward to more.