This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

AMERICAN SON

(photo by Peter Cunningham)

Kendra (Kerry Washington) and Scott (Steven Pasquale) reflect as they await important news in American Son (photo by Peter Cunningham)

Booth Theatre
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 27, $59 - $169
americansonplay.com

Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son is a blistering, explosive play, a searing deep dive into systemic and institutionalized racism in contemporary America. The story takes place in real time in a Miami police station as a storm rages, torrents of water pouring down outside tall glass windows, mixing with ever-threatening thunder and lightning reminiscent of a horror movie. (The set is by Tony-winning design master Derek McLane, with sound by Peter Fitzgerald and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski.) It’s 4:12 in the morning, and Kendra Ellis-Connor is desperate to locate her eighteen-year-old son, Jamal, a solid kid who has not come home and is not answering his phone. She is frustrated with police officer Paul Larkin, who insists that Kendra wait until the public affairs liaison officer arrives for his shift at 8:00 to find out anything. Kendra’s estranged husband, Scott Connor, shows up and tries to force further information out of Larkin regarding Jamal’s whereabouts, but he is only mildly successful. Ultimately, the liaison officer, Lt. John Stokes, comes in early, but things don’t get any easier for Kendra and Scott, who are getting angrier by the minute, but not just at the cops.

(photo by Peter Cunningham)

FBI agent Scott Connor (Steven Pasquale) has some choice thoughts for Officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) as Kendra (Kerry Washington) looks on in scintillating play at the Booth (photo by Peter Cunningham)

Color-blind casting might (deservedly) be all the rage on Broadway, but the color of each character’s skin is critical to the narrative in American Son as Demos-Brown and director Kenny Leon investigate ripped-from-the-headlines issues of identity, societal perceptions, stereotyping, racial profiling, ingrained prejudice, and cultural biases. Kendra (Kerry Washington) is a black psychology professor who says, “I don’t know I’ve had a sleep-filled night since that boy was born,” constantly fearful that something bad will happen to Jamal because of his race. Scott (Steven Pasquale) is a white FBI agent who wants his son to follow him into law enforcement, putting him on a path to attend West Point, but, not being black, Scott doesn’t share the same worries as Kendra, hoping, “This is just some frivolous nonsense. He probably just had his music cranked up too loud.” Officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) is white and has not been properly trained to handle this kind of incendiary situation, assuming that a black teenager out for the night must be part of a posse looking for trouble. “I completely understand your concern,” Larkin tells Kendra, who responds, “Respectfully, Officer — I don’t think you do.” Larkin adds, “Ma’am — I have kids too, OK?” “Any of ’em black?” Kendra says. And Stokes (Eugene Lee) is black, a seasoned officer who is not so quick to see things from Kendra’s or Scott’s points of view; “Settle down now. Settle down,” Stokes declares, but instead of calming the situation, he, well, continues to stoke the fire.

(photo by Peter Cunningham)

Kendra (Kerry Washington) and Scott (Steven Pasquale) listen intently to Lt. Stokes (Eugene Lee) in American Son (photo by Peter Cunningham)

A white civil trial attorney from South Florida whose previous plays (Fear Up Harsh, Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts) have dealt with sociopolitical subjects involving different kinds of justice, Demos-Brown was inspired to write American Son — his Broadway debut — by real-life events and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me, a letter the author pens for his adolescent son about what it’s like to grow up black in the United States. In fact, the script includes an epigraph from the book: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” Black Tony-winning director Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Stick Fly), a protégé of August Wilson’s, maintains a sizzling-hot pace, but he and Demos-Brown don’t take sides; all four characters are both guilty and innocent, and yet none of them are as well. The problem is bigger than just four people, each of whom gets to share their perspective. The audience, more racially diverse than at most Broadway shows, is also implicated, each person bringing his or her own personal history and biases with them; be prepared to hear laughs or gasps at certain times when you’re not reacting the same way as those sitting around you, the differences very much representative of the race of the audience member.

All four actors give dynamic, honest performances, led by Washington (Race, Scandal), a mother of two small children, a boy and a girl; at a postshow discussion the night I went, Washington talked about the fears black mothers have for their sons, something that brought even more intensity to her performance. (The play, which continues at the Booth through January 27 and boasts such producers as Nnamdi Asomugha, Jada Pinkett Smith, Shonda Rimes, Dwyane Wade, and Gabrielle Union-Wade, comes with a discussion guide from the Opportunity Agenda that addresses the concept of equal justice under the law, police-community relations, and racially motivated violence.) Pasquale (Junk, Rescue Me) finds just the right balance as Scott, who doesn’t get a pass just because he’s a white man who married a black woman and has a biracial teen. American Son wisely avoids clichés and melodrama, although there is some emotional manipulation, but it’s easy to look past that and immerse yourself in the onstage dilemma — and wonder what you would do if you were any of the four characters, or the most important missing fifth one, Jamal himself.

THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Raúl Esparza stars as title character in Classic Stage revival of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (photo by Joan Marcus)

Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th St. between Third & Fourth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 22, $82-$127
www.classicstage.org

As twenty-first-century Fascism takes root around the world — and, arguably, to some extent, here in America — it is an appropriate time for a revival of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 parable, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and John Doyle and Classic Stage Company have done just that, using the 1964 English translation by George Tabori. The play does not have the most illustrious history; because of its content, it was never produced in Brecht’s lifetime (he died in 1956 at the age of fifty-eight), and two Broadway productions, one starring Christopher Plummer as the title character in 1963, the other with Robin Gammell in 1968, ran for a grand total of twenty-three performances, including previews. Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre staged the allegory in 2002, with an all-star cast that included Al Pacino (as Ui, which rhymes with “phooey”), Steve Buscemi, Dominic Chianese, Billy Crudup, Charles Durning, Paul Giamatti, Sterling K. Brown, John Goodman, Chazz Palminteri, Tony Randall, and Linda Emond; among the others to try their hand at Ui are Peter Falk, Leonard Rossiter, Antony Sher, Nicol Williamson, and Hugo Weaving. Classic Stage previously put it on in 1991, with John Turturro in the lead.

For his uneven version, Tony winner Doyle (Sweeney Todd, The Color Purple) has turned to four-time Tony nominee Raúl Esparza, who starred in Doyle’s 2006 Tony-winning revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, to play Arturo Ui, a Chicago gangster intent on taking over the cauliflower market. “But truth will come to life, fraud can’t be hid too long! / To put it bluntly: Chaos reigns supreme / If everybody does as he damn pleases, / Prompted by egoism, which is a grievous fault,” Ui declares, and chaos does reign supreme in this adaptation. Ui is based on Adolf Hitler during the 1930s; the cast also features Christopher Gurr as Dogsborough (Paul von Hindenburg), Elizabeth A. Davis as Giri (Hermann Göring), Eddie Cooper as Roma (Ernst Röhm), Thom Sesma as Givola (Joseph Goebbels), and George Abud as Clark (Franz von Papen). The two-act, 130-minute play begins with all eight actors behind a floor-to-ceiling chain-link fence, as if in prison. (Doyle designed the set as well, a warehouse representative of the Reichstag.) They exit and return through a door monitored by a guard; the central area is an open space with tables and chairs. The audience sits on three sides, and the characters often speak to them directly.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui tackles the Chicago cauliflower market (photo by Joan Marcus)

The play features many long speeches in iambic pentameter, including excerpts from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, amid power grabs, corruption, threats, scandal, and deception. “He guarantees to double our grosses, / Because the grocers, Mr. Ui says, / Would rather buy a cabbage than a coffin,” Flake (Mahira Kakkar) tells Clark. But for all his bluster, Ui is also a pathetic figure at odds with his ambition. “Nobody cares enough to bump you off,” Roma, his right-hand man, advises him. Ui responds, “They don’t? You see? That’s what I mean, Ernesto. / They’re giving more respect to horse-manure. . . . I’m gonna take him for a ride, Ernesto, / As soon as I get credit for a car.” The absurdity continues when Ui declares, “It’s cauliflower now! Or bust. One day / The vegetable business shall be mine!” But in the Trump era, it also is all-too-believable that a leader can be so petty and ridiculous — and comparing the Trump administration to a gang of criminals is not unfamiliar to this audience. Thus, as a cautionary tale, Ui feels too late. Combined with inconsistent acting and pacing and too many scattershot elements that don’t come together, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui turns out to be not irresistible.

DOWNSTAIRS

(photo by James Leynse)

Siblings Tim and Tyne Daly play siblings in first-ever appearance together on a New York City stage (photo by James Leynse)

Cherry Lane Mainstage Theatre
38 Commerce St.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 22, $82-$152
212-989-2020
primarystages.org
www.cherrylanetheatre.org

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do was rush home from school to catch the 4:30 movie on channel 7, the local ABC affiliate. One week would be devoted to the Planet of the Apes films, one to QB VII, and another to monster movies, but my favorite was the week that showed crazy flicks about unsettling children in unusual circumstances. Two of the most memorable were Bad Ronald, with Scott Jacoby as a boy living in a hidden room, and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, with Jodie Foster as a girl with a secret in the basement. Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs, a Primary Stages production continuing at the Cherry Lane through December 22, is like a grown-up version of those oddball films that left such an imprint on me and many of my generation. Real-life brother and sister Tim and Tyne Daly, in their first New York City stage appearance together, star as fictional siblings Teddy and Irene, respectively, both of whom are at least a little bit off. Teddy is experiencing some financial difficulties, so he has moved into the basement of the home Irene shares with her husband, Gerry (John Procaccino), who is none-too-happy having Teddy around. Of course, nothing good ever happens in a basement. “This is my apartment,” Teddy says to Irene, who replies, “This isn’t your apartment. This is my basement.” While Irene has been able to make a comfortable life with Gerry, Teddy seems to have nothing, and he more than hints that Irene owes him.

Teddy might have trouble concentrating (his morning routine is a riot) and his wild conspiracy theories are eyebrow-raising to say the least, but he also occasionally produces surprisingly vivid and insightful statements. “Whether or not I say it doesn’t make it true or untrue. Because sometimes it is true,” he tells Irene. Later he says to her, “First of all that is a totally solipsistic argument and second you don’t know what the fuck you are talking about.” He also spends a lot of time at an ancient computer, although Irene insists it doesn’t work. About halfway through the ninety-minute play, Gerry makes his initial appearance, to tell Teddy to leave, but Teddy is not about to walk out, and he lets Gerry know it, setting up a rather unexpected conclusion.

(photo by James Leynse)

Gerry (John Procaccino) has a point to make in Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs (photo by James Leynse)

Downstairs unfolds in a series of primarily two-person scenes beautifully orchestrated by director Adrienne Campbell-Holt (Hatef*ck, What We’re Up Against); the audience sees the three characters in this dysfunctional family together only once. Emmy nominee Tim (Coastal Disturbances, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial) and Tony and Emmy winner Tyne (Gypsy, Mothers and Sons) have the chemistry of, well, a brother and sister who love and care about each other, playing the same; they deliver Rebeck’s (Seminar, Bernhardt/Hamlet) sharply unpredictable dialogue with a natural, rhythmic flow, while character actor extraordinaire Procaccino (Art, Nikolai and the Others) is terrific as the angry foil who forces himself between them. (Tyne actually made her professional stage debut at the Cherry Lane in 1966 in George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man.) Narelle Sissons’s set design is as dusty and creepy as the characters, filled with items that could become dangerous at the flick of a switch. Another touchstone of my generation, Bugs Bunny, famously told Elmer Fudd in The Wabbit Who Came to Dinner, “Don’t go down there; it’s dark!” But Downstairs is one basement that is well worth visiting for 105 eerily enticing minutes.

NASSIM

Nassim (photo by Joan Marcus)

Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour says hello to guest actor Kate Arrington in autobiographical play at City Center (photo by Joan Marcus)

New York City Center, Stage II
130 West 56th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 20, $69-$90
212-581-1212
www.barrowstreettheatre.com
www.nycitycenter.org

Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour has followed up his international hit, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, in which each show was performed by a different actor reading a script that they hadn’t rehearsed or seen before, with another twist on the standard theatrical experience. Nassim, which opened tonight at City Center’s intimate Stage II, is a delightful and moving autobiographical work about language, heritage, and the deep need for artists to tell stories. And, as with White Rabbit Red Rabbit, the less you know about it going in, the more wonderful the surprises are. Soleimanpour, who was born and raised in Iran and now lives in Berlin, arrived in the United States on a working artist visa on December 4; the play, presented by Barrow Street Theatricals, began the next night and is scheduled to run through April 20. Rhys Jarman’s set is quite simple, consisting of a microphone stand on one side, a chair and a desk on the other, and a white screen at the back. A box on the desk contains information for the guest actor, whose name is not revealed until you enter the theater; among those who either have already performed or are scheduled to are Kate Arrington, Reed Birney, Michael Chernus, Cush Jumbo, Tracy Letts, Jennifer Lim, Tedra Millan, Brad Oscar, Annie Parisse, Michael Shannon, and Michael Urie. I saw three-time Tony nominee and Obie winner Linda Emond (Homebody/Kabul, Cabaret), who was fabulously warm and engaging, throwing herself fully into the show, which is cheerfully directed by Omar Elerian (The Mill — City of Dreams, Misty).

Nassim (photo by Joan Marcus)

A guest actor and the playwright take a look at themselves and each other in Nassim (photo by Joan Marcus)

For seventy-five minutes, Emond does what she is told with wit and verve, getting so deeply involved in the proceedings that she was wiping away tears near the end. She doesn’t actually have the script in hand; instead, it is projected onto the screen, a pair of hairy hands turning the pages live. Although she is not supposed to go off-script, she did so a few times, which even Soleimanpour got a kick out of. The central focus is that Soleimanpour has never been able to stage one of his plays in Iran in his native Farsi, a language he has lost contact with; thus, his mother has never seen one of his works. “I’ve become a foreigner in my own mother tongue,” he writes. But by putting this play on in the States, he learns some English while reconnecting with Farsi.

(photo by David Monteith-Hodge)

Nassim holds myriad surprises for both the audience and a guest actor (photo by David Monteith-Hodge)

Soleimanpour has mastered this format, incorporating Q&As, photos, and audience interaction, quickly improvising while also cleverly anticipating many reactions. Originally presented at London’s Bush Theatre in July 2017, Nassim feels right at home at City Center; even the producer, the stage manager, and an usher get involved. While a significant part of the fun is watching how the guest actor deals with being put on the spot time and time again — Emond was such a joy, clearly relishing this unusual opportunity — Soleimanpour, whose father was a novelist and his mother a painter, is also sharing an intimate story that we can all relate to, tackling such ideas as human communication, family connection, and the international power of theater. It very much reminded me of Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, in which the writer, director, editor, and actor defied a government edict putting him under house arrest and banning him from producing any further movies for twenty years by making a documentary with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and having colleagues smuggle it out of the country on a USB thumb drive. (Panahi has made several other remarkable films since.) Although Soleimanpour is not under that kind of political scrutiny, his zeal for writing a play in Farsi is inspiring. Ultimately, you’ll leave City Center knowing a little more about the guest actor, a lot more about Soleimanpour, and even a few things about yourself, along with a hunger for tomatoes. Oh, and you’ll also immediately want to call your mother.

THE PRISONER

(photo © Joan Marcus)

A woman (Hayley Carmichael) visits a convicted man (Hiran Abeysekera) facing an unusual sentence in The Prisoner (photo © Joan Marcus)

Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 16, $90-$115
866-811-4111
www.tfana.org

Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne and their C.I.C.T. — Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord return to Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center with the existential parable The Prisoner, a meditative, minimalist adult fable about crime and punishment, forgiveness and forgetting. Inspired by an experience Brook had in Afghanistan more than sixty years ago, the seventy-minute piece is set in an unnamed land, on a mostly bare set (by David Violi) save for a tree stump and some scattered twigs and branches. Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera) has committed an “unspeakable act,” and his sister, Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and uncle, Ezekiel (Hervé Goffings), prepare his punishment, according to both ancient laws and the court system. He is ultimately sentenced to twenty years on a hill by himself, facing a prison, with no guards watching him, no barriers to walking away except those in his own mind. “There are no cells, no bars, and you will always have the temptation to leave,” Ezekiel instructs him. He also tells Mavuso that whenever someone asks him why he is there, he must answer, “I am here to repair.” Over the years, he is visited by a woman traveler (Hayley Carmichael), a man from a nearby village (Omar Silva), his uncle, and a few drunk guards. “You are disturbing the system!” one of them declares, but nothing can change Mavuso’s intention to carry out his sentence.

(photo © Joan Marcus)

The prisoners sister, Nadia (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), speaks with their uncle, Ezekiel (Hervé Goffings), in new work by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne (photo © Joan Marcus)

The story includes bits of magic and such philosophical statements as “Everything is in the past” and “We want to possess everything without seeing that we have nothing,” but there is no moralizing. There is also no score but instead long silences. The passage of time is indicated by Philippe Vialatte’s lighting softly going down, then coming back up. Brook never found out what crime the man in Afghanistan had committed to receive such a fate, but Mavuso’s misdeed is named, and it serves to further complicate his sentence. The time period and place are also left ambiguous, made more so by a cast of diverse actors with different accents and heritages, leaving plenty of space for each audience member’s individual imagination. Only the traveling woman wears shoes; everyone else is barefoot, walking over the wood (and hopefully avoiding splinters). Written and directed by Tony, Emmy, and Obie winner Brook and Estienne (Samuel Beckett’s Fragments, The Valley of the Astonishment, Can Themba’s The Suit), The Prisoner raises issues of tolerance and hate, love and judgment, birth and rebirth, fathers and sons, and the prisons that we all build for ourselves. When Mavuso — who wanted to be judged for his actions, since he judged the actions of others — sits quietly and stares out at the jail, he is looking over the audience, almost as if we are all in a prison as well and need to repair something in our lives as we sit still, looking back at him. Seeing such beautifully engaging and thoughtful works as The Prisoner is not a bad place to start that reparation process.

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE’S THE HEAD & THE LOAD

(photo by Stephanie Berger)

William Kentridge’s massive spectacle The Head & the Load continues at Park Avenue Armory through December 15 (photo by Stephanie Berger)

Park Avenue Armory, Wade Thompson Drill Hall
643 Park Ave. at 67th St.
December 4-15, $40-$90, 2:00/7:00/8:00
212-933-5812
armoryonpark.org
www.theheadandtheload.com

In 2012, MoMA hosted “Five Themes,” a major, wide-ranging retrospective of the work of South African artist William Kentridge. Virtually everything Kentridge has done since then — the public procession Triumph and Laments: A Project for Rome, the multimedia chamber opera Refuse the Hour, adaptations of Berg’s Lulu and Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Met, “The Refusal of Time” installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the gallery exhibition “Second-Hand Reading” at Marian Goodman, and a performance of Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate at Harlem Parish — has merely been a prelude to The Head & the Load, a massive multidisciplinary spectacle that could only be put on in New York City in the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Taking place on a stage nearly two hundred feet long, the presentation employs a jagged, abstract narrative to explore the fate of hundreds of thousands of black Africans forced into service by colonialist European countries, primarily Germany, France, Belgium, and Britain, as porters and carriers during World War I. Kentridge uses live music, choreographed movement, video projections, and dialogue in multiple languages to relate the tragic tale. A trio of military men (Hamilton Dlamini, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, and associate director Luc De Wit) speak in nonsense words from Ursonate. Ann Masina delivers gorgeous arias with objects on her head. Joanna Dudley, wearing an eagle on a Nazi helmet, is pushed across the stage on a ramshackle cart, pronouncing edicts. Sipho Seroto stands atop a tower, wearing an evil-looking gas mask. The Knights play in a surprise confined space. Mncedisi Shabangu, in a bright yellow jacket, serves as narrator, guiding us through the complex story. A procession of men and women parades across the length of the stage, many wearing or carrying stencil cutouts of human faces and animals that show up as silhouetted shadows on the back wall, mixing with previously photographed video.

(photo by Stephanie Berger)

Ann Masina sings as four men look on in The Head & the Load (photo by Stephanie Berger)

In a program note, Kentridge asks, “Can one find the truth in the fragmented and incomplete? Can one think about history as collage, rather than as narrative?” Commissioned by 14-18 NOW and the armory along with Ruhrtriennale and MASS MoCA as part of the centenary of the end of WWI, The Head & the Load is a thrilling eighty-five-minute cacophony of sound, images, and movement, a performance collage that reveals little-known facts about African involvement in the war. The title comes from the Ghanaian proverb “The head and the load are the troubles of the neck,” representing the physical and psychological burdens thrust onto Africans. The production is divided into three acts, “Manifestos,” “Paradox,” and “War,” with such scenes as “Morsecode / Swahili Phrasebook,” “Orders & Commands,” “Troubles of the Body,” “Playing Against History,” “Kaiser Waltz,” and “Coda & Deathlist.” Composers Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi’s score was inspired by Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Paul Hindemuthy, Arnold Schoenberg, and Fritz Kreisler, while Kentridge incorporates text, either spoken or projected onscreen, from Frantz Fanon, Tristan Tzara, Wilfred Owen, Aimé Césaire, the conference of Berlin, phrases from a handbook of military drills, Setswana proverbs from Sol Plaatje’s 1920 collection, and a letter from John Chilembwe.

(photo by Stephanie Berger)

The Head & the Load is highlighted by a multimedia procession across a two-hundred-foot-long stage (photo by Stephanie Berger)

The choreographer is Gregory Maqoma, with cinematography by Duško Marović, costumes by Greta Goiris, sets by Sabine Theunissen, lighting by Urs Schönebaum, and sound by Mark Grey, all coming together in exciting ways. Although Kentridge himself does not appear, his hands are evident throughout, particularly when cutting up maps and other documents on filmed segments, evoking the feel of the entire piece, which is really more of an experience than a show. When the audience enters the drill hall, they pass by several lights that project their shadows onto the back wall of the stage, a sly way of making everyone complicit in this colonialist world of war, ethnocentricity, and cultural suppression. It’s a critical message for the modern era, sent by an extraordinary artist and his marvelous team.

NETWORK

(photo by Jan Versweyveld, 2018)

Bryan Cranston takes on iconic role of madman Howard Beale in stage version of Network (photo by Jan Versweyveld, 2018)

Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through March 17, $49 - $399
networkbroadway.com

When it was released in 1976, Sidney Lumet’s Network instantly shocked audiences as it unmasked the approaching intersection of the corporatization of entertainment and news in the media, featuring a brilliant, prescient script by Bronx native Paddy Chayefsky that skewered the television industry and Americans’ obsession with “the tube.” It revealed a world dominated by ratings-hungry white men in suits, with two exceptional white female characters boldly asserting their own personal and professional power and independence at the height of the women’s liberation movement. Four decades later, the story is as relevant and shocking as ever in Ivo van Hove’s riveting yet dizzying stage production, which opened last night at the Belasco.

The film was nominated for ten Oscars, winning acting awards for the late Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight and Best Original Screenplay for Chayefsky, who wrote such other gems as Marty, The Hospital, The Americanization of Emily, and Altered States before passing away in 1981 at the age of fifty-eight. Despite Bryan Cranston’s mesmerizing lead performance and all of van Hove’s live-streaming technical wizardry — which can be breathtaking and exhilarating as well as overwhelming, distracting, anachronistic, and confusing — it’s Chayefsky’s words that steal the show, adapted here by Lee Hall like they are gospel, which in many ways they are. In the published version of the play, which debuted at London’s National Theatre in November 2017, Hall describes his adaptation as “keyhole surgery,” writing, “Hopefully my interventions are invisible to the untrained eye.” The only significant changes involve the treatment of terrorists by the media, which Hall and van Hove tone down here, and the addition of a coda following the climactic finale. (Hall was given access to Chayefsky’s archives, so he has noted that any and all changes were based on or inspired by the author’s notes, letters, drafts, etc.)

(photo by Jan Versweyveld, 2018)

Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) is downtrodden as Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn) looks distraught in Ivo van Hove’s high-tech Broadway version of Network (photo by Jan Versweyveld, 2018)

Olivier, Emmy, and Tony winner Cranston (Breaking Bad, All the Way) takes on the iconic role of Howard Beale, portrayed so memorably by Finch in the film. Cranston immerses himself in the role with a careful abandon; he pays tribute to Finch while making the part his own, much as Hall and van Hove treat the movie. After twenty-five years with Union Broadcasting Systems, Beale is being put out to pasture because of low ratings. But he surprises everyone when he announces during a broadcast that he is going to commit suicide live on television the next week. His best friend and longtime colleague, news division president Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn), puts him back on the air quickly so he can apologize and restore his dignity, but Beale instead calls “bullshit” on the state of the world, sending everyone into a tizzy — except ruthlessly ambitious programming head Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), who jumps on the unique opportunity and soon convinces executive producer Harry Hunter (Julian Elijah Martinez), network executive Nelson Chaney (Frank Wood), and network head Frank Hackett (Joshua Boone) to give Beale his own show, making him a kind of angry prophet of the airwaves, speaking for and to the common person. The contemporary of industry legends Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow becomes a ranting and raving populist hero, although Schumacher believes Beale is being turned into a fool, but there’s little he can to do stop the momentum, which eventually falls apart all by itself.

The use of live video, something van Hove has done in such previous productions as The Damned at Park Avenue Armory and Kings of War at BAM, creates an ever-moving swirl of activity, akin to surfing the internet, except the equipment itself is very modern, digital in an analog era that featured big, bulky cameras. (The director did not employ that style in his 2016 Arthur Miller back-to-back Broadway adaptations of A View from the Bridge and The Crucible.) Depending on where you are sitting, the cameras, operated by technicians Gina Daniels, Nicholas Guest, Jeena Yi, and Joe Paulik, may also occasionally block your view. The footage is projected onto a large screen at the back, often turning Beale into a giant, his image repeating into the distance. Period news reports about Patty Hearst and old commercials — with Roy Scheider in a Folgers ad and Cranston himself pitching Preparation H — fly by on a wall of screens on one side, but don’t get too caught up in them or you’ll miss the magnificent dialogue. The set, by van Hove’s partner, Jan Versweyveld, includes a bar and nightclub-like tables and couches at stage left (where audience members who pay $299 to $399 enjoy dinner and drinks curated by former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses while watching the show and even interacting with the characters) and the glassed-in control room at stage right, where various executives, some of the tech crew, and the announcer (Henry Stram) can always be seen, as if everyone is both under surveillance and doing the surveilling.

(photo by Jan Versweyveld, 2018)

Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany) and Harry Hunter (Julian Elijah Martinez) can’t believe what they’re seeing in Network (photo by Jan Versweyveld, 2018)

When Beale implores his television audience to open their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” van Hove shows numerous people doing only the latter; instead of photographing men and women yelling out their windows, a procession of YouTube-like selfie videos follow, seeming out of time and place. The live video even extends outdoors when Max and Diana go for a stroll, but the scene takes you out of the play as passersby gawk at Goldwyn (Scandal, Ghost) and Emmy winner Maslany (Orphan Black, Mary Page Marlowe), who never quite catch the fire and passion of William Holden and Dunaway in the film, a critical relationship that literally puts the news and entertainment divisions in bed together. Goldwyn is otherwise solidly effective as Beale’s determined protector, and the pivotal showdown between Max and his wife, Louise (Alyssa Bresnahan), hits the right notes; however, Bresnahan looks so much like Dunaway that you can’t help but wonder if she should have played Diana. (Coincidentally, Dunaway just announced she will be returning to Broadway next year, portraying Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five.) In a fine casting touch, Barzin Akhavan plays both Jack Snowden, the young anchor in line to replace Beale, and the warm-up guy for Beale’s circuslike show, a newsman transformed into carnival barker.

(photo by Jan Versweyveld, 2018)

News division president Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn) and programming head Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany) bring their work home with them in Network) (photo by Jan Versweyveld, 2018)

But it’s Chayefsky’s sparkling language that reigns supreme all these years later; Beale’s pronouncements ring as true now as they did in 1976. Take this speech, for example: “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do and there’s no end to it. We know the air’s unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat and we sit and watch our teevees while some local newscaster tells us today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We all know things are bad. Worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything’s going crazy. So we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house and slowly the world we live in gets smaller and all we ask is, please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my teevee and my hair dryer and my steel belted radials, and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone. Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad.” When he mentions Russia, the audience laughs, but Hall isn’t making a cheap joke about current events; the reference is in the film.

In another Beale rant, it’s as if Chayefsky saw the coming of smartphones, the internet, and social media: “Because less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get on your television. There is a whole and entire generation right now who never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is gospel. This tube is the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, and prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddam force in the whole godless world! And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”

When Jensen makes his remarkably foresighted proclamation to Beale about power, international commerce, and “the primal forces of nature,” devilishly delivered by Wyman (Catch Me If You Can, A Tale of Two Cities), van Hove puts Jensen above everyone else on a heavenly platform, as if he’s a godlike figure who is the only one who understands what is really happening in the world — in 1976 as well as in 2018. Be sure to get to the Belasco early, as the actors are already traversing the stage, preparing for the evening news, as the audience enters the theater, and stay in your seats after the curtain call, as there’s a bonus that brings the visionary satire right up to the present moment, although that point has already frighteningly shone through over and over again.