Bryan Cranston’s blistering performance as Network‘s mad-as-hell prophet of the airwaves – now ranting from Broadway’s Belasco Theatre – is all the proof anyone could need that an actor can demolish any and all associations to a role that audiences carry to their seats.

I’m not referring to our memories of Peter Finch’s instant classic performance of raving newsman Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterwork. The ghost Cranston battles is his own, and even if by now he’s an old hat at ripping away a perma-glued fictional persona, his Network star turn is no less mesmerizing, so thoroughly does the actor strip away Walter White. 

And LBJ (All the Way) and Dalton Trumbo (Trumbo) and hapless Hal (Malcolm in the Middle). But those characters – might as well toss in Seinfeld‘s oily dentist Tim Whatley, too – can’t really compete with Walter White, the high school teacher turned crystal meth artiste who anchored the great AMC series Breaking Bad. We’ll never know if James Gandolfini could have survived Tony Soprano – the actor died too young – but we have all the certainty needed that Gandolfini’s only true rival for the title of his generation’s greatest television actor has broken free of the past.

Goldwyn, Cranston
Jan Versweyveld

By now I’m well past the point in this review where I should have more thoroughly discussed Network, director Ivo van Hove’s Broadway staging of the Paddy Chayefsky TV satire, a production to which the director and his longtime design collaborator Jan Versweyveld have given their trademark ultra-modern glass sheen and multi-media approach (hand-held cameras are used to display live, close-up video on large screens, and in one brief segment even follow two of the stars – Tony Goldwyn and Tatiana Maslany – outside the theater).

But my late-arriving discussion of the production seems justified for a play so completely dominated by a single performance. In most other respects, Network is something of a let-down, and certainly no improvement over the film. Goldwyn is good if miscast as Beale’s longtime friend, colleague and fellow midlife crisis sufferer Max Schumacher, a role better suited to the doughy, sad-sack late-career William Holden than Scandal‘s ever-fit president.

Maslany, Martinez
Jan Versweyveld

And Maslany (Orphan Black), as the ice-blooded TV exec Diane Christensen, does nothing to dislodge the memory of Faye Dunaway’s Oscar-winning performance. (Adding insult to injury, Dunaway chose today to announce her own return to Broadway in next summer’s Tea At Five).

The plot, if you need a refresher: Veteran newsman Howard Beale (the role won Finch a posthumous Oscar) has been fired from his network for low ratings, and announces on-air that he’ll commit public suicide during the following evening’s broadcast.

Ratings soar. He becomes a populist hero and network savior. Buddy Max looks on, his initial bemusement turning to grave concern as Beale grows ever loonier, muttering to himself on-air, ranting against whatever powers there be, telling viewers he’s run out of bullshit, making wild predictions and, famously, instructing his viewers to scream from their windows and rooftops “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

That scene in the film version is still guaranteed to raise goosebumps as it unspools a montage of people across the country doing as Beale says, their voices blending together into a singular scream of frustration, anger and a decade’s worth of assassinations and war and corruption. Van Hove recreates the effect with the production’s only glaring anachronism: The faces of the mad as hell screamers are flashed on the walls as if we’re seeing them via computer cameras. Elsewhere on the stage, diners and drinkers at the posh on-stage watering hole – a real restaurant that can be had for a premium ticket price – watch the goings-on, a strange flourish that frankly makes little sense, visually or otherwise.

Anyway, even as America screams, Howard’s ratings slide. The network wolves circle, chief among them Maslany’s Diane, Julian Elijah Martinez’s Harry Hunter, Frank Wood’s Nelson Chaney, Nick Wyman’s Arthur Jensen and Joshua Boone’s Frank Hackett (in the film, Hackett was played by Robert Duvall, making Network one of two new Broadway productions to include a role made famous by the Godfather consigliere; hint: Hey, Boo).

The adaptation by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) sticks close to Chayefsky’s original script, with mixed results. References to, say, The Mary Tyler Moore Show once gave Network a startling contemporaneity, but now seem a tad camp. And hearing, with fresh ears, that melodramatic monologue that won Beatrice Straight an Oscar does little but suggest just how good Straight was. That’s no slight against Alyssa Bresnahan, who plays the role on stage, but lightning can’t strike twice.

Well, not often anyway. Cranston comes damn close to matching the power of Finch’s Beale, focusing more than he predecessor on the character’s desperate sadness. The shift in tone works, and not only because of its freshness: Post-Watergate ire and cynicism seem to have given way to a end-of-our-ropes resignation, and that, when all is said and done, goes as far as anything to explain why van Hove chose to resurrect Network. Time to get mad as hell, indeed.