When the film Network was released in 1976, I was a freshman in college majoring in communications and was a total news junkie. Cable TV was in its infancy here, the word ‘infotainment’ was unheard of, and reality TV wasn’t invented yet. The idea that a network news anchor would be fired, lose his cool on camera, and then morph into a cause celebre who pulled over-the-moon ratings in the hands of a program developer was just a work of fiction from Paddy Chayefsky’s pen (or maybe typewriter. Remember, no computers back then.)
Fast forward to our world of 24 hour information, abbreviated news cycles, countless ways to access information from cable stations to podcasts in the palm of our hands, citizen journalists, and other influencers. How could we have known? And how did we not?
Theatre companion and I agreed that Network on stage at D’Youville Kavinoky Professional Theatre was fascinating, fun, and just a little bit frightening in its prescience. Lee Hall’s adaptation doesn’t stray far from Chayefsky’s original screenplay. The center of the story is Howard Beale (well played by Peter Palmisano), aging anchorman whose career and ratings are waning. The reality of the biz means that this gets you fired. Until you are granted one last ‘goodbye’ and you use that moment to make a point with the people….and the ratings shoot up. Would Cronkite have done that? Jennings? Huntley or Brinkley? I think not. Enter programmer Diana Christensen (Michele Roberts) who sees dollar signs with a side of edgy, exploitative entertainment. She’ll make a ‘new’ star out of Beale by letting him rant nightly on a talk show that falls outside of news. And consider the news of the day at that time: the lingering impact of 1974’s oil crisis. Patty Hearst and her stint as a domestic terrorist. Those things were shaking up our world with the perfect fodder for Beale’s agita.
Palmisano, Roberts, and their castmates all deliver strong performances and the production itself is very good. Director Loraine O’Donnell created a real media circus on stage that was a blast to watch. Brian Milbrand’s video design (you’re watching a broadcast ‘on stage’ and pushed out on the video screen which gives you a thought-provoking perspective) was its own character and it was fun watching the screen and the stage (or was it the stage and the screen?) in your own frame.
Palmisano’s frantic pacing and yelling and lecturing were all spot on. And yes, I know there was a whole cast on stage, but wow, this his frenetic energy and call to action is what makes the show. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this adaptation kept one of the most absurd yet saddest moments in the movie, when Diana multi-tasks through perfunctory intimacy with her (married) lover. Roberts did Faye Dunaway proud.
Network is really a treat, and admittedly, I very rarely like movies put on stage. This one was quite special because it was all so unreally real. It’s a fast paced two hours with an intermission, on the air, I mean on stage until May 14. Details and tickets at www.kavinokytheatre.com.