To start with the greatest asset of this adaption of a 1976 movie: Bryan Cranston. Not just his acting, but the effects that propel a close-up of Cranston’s face across the entire back of the stage during Howard Beale’s iconic breakdown. From my seat in the front row, I saw Cranston run up the aisle in a state of dementia and then shed tears as he decries a country where corporate money dominates the needs of everyday citizens. And, yes, I felt angry as Cranston stood in dead silence, and then exploded in Beale’s mantra: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (if you want, you can purchase a $20 coffee cup with the slogan in the lobby)
Up to that climactic middle scene, Network is a loud, intense, and often funny exploration of the behind-the-scenes politics of a failing television network. An ensemble of characters (mostly TX executives and producers) battle over the conflict of balancing journalistic integrity with business profitability. After the on-air meltdown, Network becomes more abstract as Beale is sold to viewers as a modern-day prophet, complete with foreboding speeches about the world we will find after 1976 when corporations shift this balance away from integrity in lieu of money. This change in focus, unfortunately, becomes more exhausting than entertaining. Network is fascinating as a historical piece—“Look at how accurate they were back in 1976 predicting the state of modern news!”—but that aspect becomes more confused as director Ivo Van Hove adds increasingly modern graphics to Beale’s new program.
Network is well worth seeing for Cranston’s performance, but regarding the intensity Van Hove builds with a clear nod to the conflicts of modern America—the fire that inflames the first 75 minutes ironically smolders the more Network tells us how “mad as hell” we should be.
Yes, The Prom is based on a trope: a group of misfits visit a small town determined to make a difference, but their oblivious antics cause more harm than good. Even if some scenes from The Prom seem lifted from other shows, it does remain funny from beginning to end. With seven genuinely likable characters and a powerful relationship between two teenage girls, the audience has much to root for between the laughs.
The opening echoes The Producers—starting with the opening night of the doomed Broadway musical Eleanor, a musical based on Eleanor Roosevelt. The leads Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) and Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas) doom the show because of their sheer unlikability. Their friends Trent (Christopher Sieber) and Angie (Angie Schworer) and their publicist Sheldon (Josh Lamon) are experiencing similar career lows, and they all decide they need to regain public favor by supporting a cause. Shift the action to Indiana, where a high school has just gone viral for cancelling its prom because one girl wants to attend with another girl, and we have our colorful-heroes-taking-on–bigotry storyline (this is not subtext—the performers announced themselves at a PTA meeting as “New York liberal Democrats .”)
So what works in The Prom? It turns out, a whole lot. Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), the persecuted teen, is realistically more appalled by this razzle-dazzle circus than anyone else. Her relationship with the closeted and fearful Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) has real heart. Principal Hawkins (Michael Potts) is fantastic both because his character is unconflicted about doing what is best for Emma despite criticism from some community members, and because his fandom for Dee Dee leads to me favorite line (Hawkins: “Straight men can also like Broadway”; Dee Dee: “You know, I’ve heard that.”)
Some of the reviews of The Prom have criticized the preachiness of the second act, and that criticism is not wrong, but hitting an audience a little too hard with a political message is a small price to pay for a musical that has fun, upbeat songs and energizing dance numbers.
The Lifespan of a Fact
I visited New York to see Bryan Cranston in Network, but the production I am really going to remember is The Lifespan of a Fact, a brilliant comedy which encourages thought without any pretense of easy answers. Based on a non-fiction book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the authors become two of the three characters in this theatrical adaption. The beginning features magazine editor Emily (Cherry Jones) calling in Jim (Daniel Radcliffe), an intern eager to prove himself, for an “important assignment.” She needs Jim to completely fact check John’s essay, an exploration of suicide rates in Las Vegas, by Monday morning. Much of the comedy from early scenes revolve around a conflict that all-too-many American workers can relate to—Jim is given ambiguous, conflicting directives from Emily, who, it turns out, is looking for a half-hearted attempt at due diligence rather than detailed fact checking.
I admit that I chose this play largely because of Daniel Radcliffe, who I had not yet seen live on stage. His performance as Jim Fingal showcases impeccable comic timing. He is so obsessive compulsive that his character in three days creates 130 pages of notes about the facts in a 15-page essay. John (Bobby Cannavale) initially dismisses Jim’s comments, arrogantly insisting that the details Jim wants to discuss—brick colors, the number of strip clubs in Vegas, the criteria for a “traffic jam”, to name a few—do not matter because his poetic license presents more truth about his subject than, well, the actual truth.
Thus we have an experienced writer, who is uncompromising about his art, squaring off against an upstart, who is uncompromising about facts, with Emily serving as the exhausted referee. Truth vs. accuracy. Art vs. journalistic integrity. Old-school feature writing vs. the unforgiving era of Internet searches. To highlight just one of the arguments John provides in an impassioned speech, the dimensions of the chair in his living room where his mother passed away are not exact to the measurements advertised on the Internet. The advertised dimensions would mean the chair was too big for the space. Does that mean that in truth John’s mother could not have died in that chair as John claims? Or does it even matter?
With its small cast of three characters and only two settings (Emily’s office in New York and John’s home in Las Vegas), The Lifespan of a Fact seems certain to find a production at a major Chicago theater in the next year or two. I look forward to seeing it again both for the laughs and for the complex ideas, which will be even more intriguing on a second viewing.