The Farnsworth Invention, showbiz writer Aaron Sorkin’s misfired attempt to retrofit a screenplay about the patent battle over television transmission into a stage drama was a dud when it opened in 2007 and is fatally defective still—even with solid performances from its two leads and energetic direction from 1st Stage Artistic Director Alex Levy.
The fascinating story about the creation of television is represented in a quasi-true David versus Goliath clash between boy-genius Philo T. Farnsworth (Sam Ludwig) and his team of enterprising, underfunded dreamers, and brilliant corporate chieftain David Sarnoff (Jonathan Lee Taylor), a visionary telecommunications pioneer who would become the president of RCA and the founder of NBC.
The audience is provided clipped backstories for the two men, both of whom were instrumental in the birthing of the world-changing medium: Farnsworth, the self-taught prodigy born in a log cabin in nowhere Utah, who began conceptualizing electronic television while still in high school and was the first to transmit a moving image; and Sarnoff, an impoverished Russian emigrant to the United States who rose from office copy boy to czar of one of the largest media empires in the world by developing the commercial system for radio and television as we know it.
But The Farnsworth Invention doesn’t get much more dramatic than a reading of the words above. Sorkin has unheroically reduced history to a bloodless, scene-skipping reenactment mostly presented through direct-address narration. The play never takes flight, nor plumbs any depths nor even moves beyond choppy, overheated exposition.
Even though there are 14 actors in the cast, playing dozens of roles, there is little emotional texture or dramatic conflict and characters are mere props itemizing footnotes. In sum, this isn’t a drama, but rather an associated series of informational excerpts.
The play contains ideas,of course, about the relationship between idealism and innovation, the proper role of technology, and the elusiveness of truth. In fact, having the two men addressing the audience with their versions of events, telling each other’s story and sometimes breaking in to dispute something said by the other is the only thing about the play that works, making me wonder how good this could’ve been as a two-man show. Especially since Farnsworth and Sarnoff and their meta-relationship with each other within the confines of the play is the only thing holding one’s attention at all.
Ludwig and Taylor both hold their own as the poles in this debate. Both entrepreneurs, each are appealing in their embodiment of the upstart idealist and the corporate pragmatist, respectively. I was specifically impressed with Taylor’s transformation into a young mogul, with all the heft and wariness incumbent to that position. Costumed in weighty power suits designed by Danielle Preston, he exuded the steely confidence of a keen power broker and made man who, for all his success, will not surrender striving in order to put more and more distance between himself and the shtetl of his youth.
Farnsworth is portrayed as trusting, frustrated and sensitive, giving Ludwig the opportunity to show more of a range. He responds with sustained burst of nervy intensity, reminiscent of Jesse Eisenberg’s characterization of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, one of Sorkin’s best scripts.
The rest of the ensemble hit their marks trading numerous roles throughout the show, but as the writing focuses almost exclusively on the leads’ narrations, these secondary roles are woefully indistinct. However, Levy skillfully and resourcefully mobilizes the cast around a bi-level skeleton of a set designed by Kathryn Kawecki.
Well, at the very least, you can walk away from The Farnsworth Invention thinking that you learned something, right? You learned a little bit about the man credited with inventing television in the United States, and about how “the system,” in the form of the Radio Corporation of America, stole it from him. Except, … that’s not what happened. It can be more strongly argued that the opposite of what is depicted in the play’s climactic scenes is closer to the truth.
Sorkin, the celebrated, multi-talented polemicist and media insider should have come up with something better than this. 1st Stage has done the best that it can with the material, but not enough to merit a recommendation.
The Farnsworth Invention by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Alex Levy. Featuring Frank Britton, Edward Christian, Katrina Clark, Michael Crowley, Gary Dubreuil, Amanda Forstrom, Jeremy Keith Hunter, Sam Ludwig, Liz Mamana, Tendo Nsubuga, Matthew Sparacino, Jonathan Lee Taylor, Caroline Wolfson and Jacob Yeh. Set Design: Kathryn Kawecki. Lighting Design: Robbie Hayes. Costume Design: Danielle Preston. Sound Design: Ethan Balis. Props Design: Cindy Jacobs. Stage Manager: Allison Poms. Produced by 1st Stage. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
Alexander Magoun says
Two observations: First, The Farnsworth Invention was one of the casualties of the Broadway strike in the fall of 2007, which forced its investors to carry the production for 3 weeks before it opened and ran for 104 performances. Second, as director of the David Sarnoff Library, I received a phone call from Mr. Sorkin’s assistant and then spent about 90 minutes rebutting the simplistic characterizations of the “last lone inventor”who defends his television system from the ruthless capitalist. Although I can’t say what the playwright had in mind before that conversation, while watching Hank Azaria match wits with Jimmi Simpson it struck me that it could have been just as fairly titled “The Sarnoff Invention.”