NETWORK at Kavinoky more relevant than ever today 

THE BASICS:  NETWORK, a play adapted by Lee Hall in 2019 from the 1976 screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Loraine O’Donnell, and presented by D’Youville University’s Kavinoky Theatre. April 21 – May 14, Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30, with matinees on Saturdays at 3:30 and Sundays at 2:00 at the Kavinoky Theatre 320 Porter Ave, Buffalo, NY 14201 (716-829-7668)

RUNTIME: 2 hours with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Is broadcast news a sacred trust? A business? An entertainment?  It’s all three as we’ve come to experience it in our lifetimes.  In this play, news anchorman Howard Beale’s ratings are down and he’s just burned out.  During his final (he thinks) broadcast he unloads on the viewers all of his frustrations about modern life, politics, and how everyday people are getting screwed.  Encouraging his viewers to go to their windows and shout out to the world “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” his ratings soar as he becomes a populist prophet.  It’s all new and shiny and exciting, until it isn’t.  As the network’s suits dither and scramble the shrewd Diana Christensen, the only woman exec, focuses intently on the almighty buck.  

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell has left the building after five years at the helm to go to another non-profit position in her hometown of Boonville, NY.  She’ll be back next season to direct two more plays, but before she left for home, she directed one more Kavinoky-appropriate play.  By this, I mean that The Kav has a long history of plays with a political angle and since most Americans get their political news from television, NETWORK is a political play.

It was written as a screenplay by Paddy Chayevsky in the early 1970s, about ten years before the creation of The Fox News Network not to mention the grooming of television “news” personalities such as Tucker Carlson, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, etc..  And while Chayevsky correctly saw that TV is all about money and that ratings are useful in that they dictate the cost of advertising (or the cost to the cable companies to have the show) I’m not sure that he correctly predicted just how soulless the medium would become. 

And that’s why, even though Howard Beale as played by Peter Palmisano is arguably the protagonist and central character for this play, the person to pay attention to is Diana Christensen as played by Michele Roberts.  You see, Howard Beale is insane.  He’s like a wild man preaching in the desert.  He actually is a true believer.  And he’s willing to break one of the cardinal rules of journalism: Report the news; don’t become the news.

Kodi James & Peter Palmisano

Michele Roberts, Jacob Albarella
Photos by Gene Witkowski

But Diana doesn’t care a whit what’s going on in Howard’s brain.  If the people want bread and circuses, if they want human sacrifice in the coliseum, that’s what she’ll give them.  She does seem a little concerned when Beale announces that he’s going to commit suicide on air, but you know that she’s not really concerned with the loss of human life as much as the potential gain in ratings.

If Diana has the soul (or lack of same) as Lady Macbeth, then Max Schumacher (played by Christopher Guilmet) is her Macbeth, a man plagued by doubts but willing to go along with her as she uses sex to motivate him.

Other various “suits” or TV execs are played by Matt Witten, John Kreuzer, Don Gervasi, Peter Horn, and ultimately the alpha-suit, played by Jack Hunter. Also on stage in various television studio roles are Anne Defazio, Jacob Albarella, Brenan Didio, Shannell Dixon, Kodi James, Camille Jessica, and (on-screen only) Mike Randall.

As you can see, it’s a very big cast, and I wish that Lee Hall in his adaptation had whittled down the list of characters.  There is a lot of A-list talent on that small stage with, honestly, very little for most of them to do.  I understand that there are multiple levels in any television network’s hierarchy, but I don’t need to see them all.  I’m contrasting NETWORK with The Kavinoky’s 2022 production of THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT, also about veracity in journalism, which was a very compelling drama with only three characters on stage (played by Peter Palmisano, Loraine O’Donnell, and Brian Brown). 

Approximating a television studio, the set by David King is not hyper-realistic but quite serviceable and does NOT require any lengthy scene changes (with the occasional chair being carried on and off by one of the actors not in the scene).  The Kavinoky continues to get mileage out of its digital backdrop, providing a lot of authentic 1970s commercials before the show and during the entire intermission.  That was a lot of fun for the mostly Boomer audience.  Brian Milbrand once again came up with the video design but this time we actually got to see him on stage as “Camera Man” during the “on-air” segments of the play.  The play is firmly set in the 1970s, before cell phones and right in the middle of the career of CBS Walter Cronkite “the most trusted man in America.”  I’m sure back then, in contrast, the character of Howard Beale seemed extreme.  Not so much today.

As Tucker Carlson and Fox News continue to be the news themselves, NETWORK is a play that might help make some semblance of a sense of it all.

Lead image: Peter Palmisano, Brian Milbrand, Michele Roberts, Camille Jessica, Kodi James & John Kreuzer

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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