A 1976 film might not be expected to translate seamlessly to Broadway in 2018, but for the cast and creative team behind “Network,” which premiered Thursday night with Hillary Clinton in the audience, the story still feels uncomfortably close to home.
“It was a satire then, and now it’s documentary realism,” said Lee Hall, who adapted the screenplay for the stage. “That’s the tragedy behind the play, and that’s why it was worth revisiting.” For Hall, the transfer from the National Theatre in London to the Belasco in New York has thrown those differences into even starker relief: “We’re a few blocks away from Fox News, half a mile away from Trump Tower – this is a very, very different reality than the one we played in London.”
Having idolized “Network” screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky for decades, Hall saw his job as that of “Paddy’s number one fan” as well as his interpreter. “I went to look at a lot of his writing that didn’t get used in the film, and things he wrote after the event, and I tried to embroider that into the screenplay,” he explained. “It’s been a sort of laboratory job of just trying to fit everything together and also give it the benefit of his own hindsight – things he said about it that he would like to clarify. It’s been a job of curation as much as writing.”
When Hall first revisited the screenplay years ago, he realized it was “made for the theater” – and thousands of miles away, Tony Goldwyn came to the same conclusion at the same time. He’d been asked to take part in one of Jason Reitman’s legendary Live Reads at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, reading for Max Schumaker (the role he’s now playing on Broadway) opposite Aaron Sorkin as Howard Beale. “We had a great cast, a great audience, and we had a lot of fun, and I said, ‘This is a piece of theater,’” Goldwyn told Variety.
He immediately called his agent to ask who had the rights to the 1976 film, only to learn that Ivo van Hove was about to stage it in London. When Bryan Cranston emailed to say they’d love to have him for the New York transfer, he couldn’t refuse – even if it meant being written out of the final episode of “Chambers” to make the dates work.
So, what made the script so irresistible? “The biggest thing to me is this idea of anger,” Goldwyn said. “I think anger has become the currency in our current culture, our media, our politics – and it’s been there, but President Trump really made it into a tradeable currency. It’s been given free license, and it’s very, very dangerous. This play is a testament to that.”
Van Hove agreed. “‘Mad as hell,’” he said, quoting Beale’s famous catchphrase. “People are mad as hell all over the world. Fake news, news becoming infotainment – all the elements are there. For me, it became so relevant for today.”
For Tatiana Maslany, who plays ambitious TV exec Diana, the story has remained unfortunately timely in another way. “With Diana’s character specifically – we would think that we’re past the point where we need to see a ferocious young woman who’s going after what she wants, but that still is a revolutionary character,” Maslany told Variety. “She’s still banging her head against the wall of men who are like, ‘We’re going to keep the status quo and do the thing we know is good,’ even when she knows she can do something better.”
Cranston was likewise attracted to the production for its resonance today. The “Breaking Bad” star explained that when he’s deciding which projects to take on, “I don’t look at it from a sense of the medium. I don’t go, ‘I wanna do more TV’ or ‘I wanna do a play.’ I look at it from a sense of what is available to me: ‘What is the story? Is it compelling? Is it important? Am I moved by it?’ And if those answers are yes, then I’m interested.”
“Network” met all of those criteria. “We’re in a world that is reverberating with the messaging that Paddy Chayefsky put forth – about being addicted to our technology, about fake news, about trusting one source for your news, about not reading, not investigating,” Cranston said. “It encompasses so much, and he does it in such an entertaining way – I couldn’t refuse.”