FST's Network Makes for Compelling Viewing
Long before social media, 24-hour cable TV political commentary shows or really even the internet, Paddy Chayefsky was certainly onto something when he wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning movie Network, which came out in 1976. This black comedy-drama about a deranged news anchorman who becomes a prophet of the airwaves seems to have made Chayefsky himself something of a prophet, as you can see in the 2017 adaptation of his script by Lee Hall, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre.
When you think about it, it’s kind of surprising it took that many years for Network to take to the stage. It’s a natural, in a way, with its opportunities to have the theater audience become the studio audience, as Howard Beale (Sheffield Chastain) threatens suicide on the air after being told he has two weeks left with UBS, a network struggling for ratings. At first, of course, his fellow staffers are appalled and desperate to yank him away from the mic.
But then a farewell appearance arranged by his longtime friend and colleague, Max Schumacher (Rod Brogan), gives Beale the chance to really get some stuff off his chest, until he eventually strikes a chord among his viewers with that famous “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” rant. Soon—surprise!—the ratings go up, and Beale gets more airtime, along with a switch from news to entertainment programming thanks to ambitious, ruthless producer Diana Christensen (Carly Zien), who will literally do anything to keep the ratings soaring.
Consternation turns to glee among the network’s corporate owners, too, at least until Beale starts telling some truths that hit too close to home. That’s when he meets up with the truly scary head of everything, Jensen (Roy Stanton), who delivers a speech that’s chilling in its implications not only for Beale but for us.
The approach to Network, directed here by Richard Hopkins, draws us into the action immediately, not only via the actors’ physical presence onstage, especially Chastain’s, but on the many TV screens that cluster around the set (designed by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay with projections and video design by Nathan W. Scheuer). We watch the cameras and crew members ready for each broadcast, adding to the tense atmosphere. Much of the news that we hear and see will be familiar to anyone alive during the 1970s, with its headlines about Patty Hearst, terrorism, high fuel prices and crime rates, etc., but at the same time those stories, with slight differences in details, can feel like today’s.
Chastain, who’s appeared in a number of shows at FST over the years, gives one of his strongest performances as the increasingly unhinged Beale, leaning into his screen closeups in his on-air scenes but also retaining some real humanity when off the air. Brogan is a good counterpoint to him in their interactions; I found his adulterous relationship with Diana less convincing , although it’s clear that her sexual drive is part of her overall voracity. Hopkins’ direction nicely calibrates the lines between comedy and drama amid escalating insanity.
Overall, you will laugh during Network, yes, but it will be uneasy laughter, as intended. The play, a regional premiere, continues through March 19. For tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.