The set for Network is spectacular. On the left side of the stage is a television studio, the crew working noiselessly inside a series of glass booths. On the right is a working bar and restaurant, one patronized not only by the play’s characters but by some of the audience, whose seats are onstage and not far from the action. In the center is the set for the nightly news, where Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) delivers his iconic monologues.
Unfortunately, all life drains from this tableau the moment the play begins. Director Ivo van Hove has populated his stage with cameramen who more frequently obscure the action than document it, their soap opera-quality video streaming onto televisions peppered throughout the theater. As with The Roman Tragedies, he films a scene outside, one we watch on these screens until the actors reenter the building and walk down the aisle. And the audience-eating-and-drinking onstage bit—which was also used in Roman Tragedies—ultimately serves as a distraction, complete with clanging tableware. None of these decisions is particularly suited to the material; it feels as if van Hove is just recycling tricks from past productions, regardless of their relationship to his text. Cluttered with schtick and flashy gadgets, this Network makes lots of noise but has little resonance.
Consider Howard Beale, the man who is “articulating the popular rage.” In 1976, his exhaustion with bullshit was sincere. In 2018, he sounds more like Sean Hannity than Edward R. Murrow. But playwright Lee Hall never quite decides what Howard means this time around. Is he an angry white man howling at his looming irrelevance, or is he an oracle with nothing to lose? Clouded by the theatrical pyrotechnics, we never see Howard clearly. The other characters—his best friend Max (Tony Goldwyn), his lover Diana (Tatiana Maslany)—are just as poorly drawn, and the result is eerily inhuman, even as the dehumanizing effects of technology seems to be one of the very subjects of the play. In other words, Network reproduces the very phenomenon it is ostensibly challenging. It is a satire in which everyone seems angry except the writer.