The Farnsworth Invention
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 5, 2007
The Farnsworth Invention is television, and one of the great successes of this new play by Aaron Sorkin is how it conjures up a sense of the gravity of that eponymous event. We're about a generation away from a world where no one can remember life without television, and so looking back to the impact of a breakthrough that completely changed the way we communicate and live is pretty valuable.
But for me, the real contribution of this remarkable work is the way it reminds us of an American spirit that's become both scarce and elusive of late, at least in our drama. Sorkin presents the creation of television from two complementary and interlocking perspectives: one of our narrators is indeed Philo Farnsworth, the young Utah genius who figured out how to move images at the speed of light while he was still in high school; the other is David Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant who became head of the world's first modern media company, NBC. The first had the brilliance to build something that no one else had ever seen. The second had the vision to figure out what it was for. The Farnsworth Invention debates which of these men was properly the "owner" of the thing they both made. But at its heart that question matters much less than the fact that these men dreamed television into existence and changed the world in the process. Who dreams that big nowadays?
The parallel narratives of Farnsworth's and Sarnoff's journeys toward destiny (and toward one another) are told with great economy and style by Sorkin and his director, Des McAnuff. The play begins with Sarnoff recounting Farnsworth's early history, which is the stuff of a Horatio Alger story: a farmer's son with a talent for electronics brings a drawing (of what we know is a television set) to his provincial chemistry teacher. By the time he's reached his early 20s, Farnsworth has attracted the attention of backers who give him enough money to enable him to build a prototype of his invention. McAnuff repeats the trick he pulled off in Jersey Boys, by the way, getting the audience so wrapped up in the excitement of creation that when Farnsworth actually successfully demonstrates his first television—something we all knew he accomplished before we came into the theatre—the excitement in the room is thrilling and palpable.
Sarnoff, meanwhile (Farnsworth tells us), rose from wise-guy teenage telegraph operator to radio mogul in about a decade. Sarnoff is the first to understand that mass communication technology is truly transformative; he maps out a vision for radio and then for television in which it is the grand new engine of democracy, spreading culture, knowledge, and information across the land and elevating its listeners/viewers to new levels of actualization. Later, we see Sarnoff first resist and then give in to a more commercial impulse, i.e., to rent out broadcast time to advertisers. And the seismic cultural shift happens, right in front of our eyes.
Both Farnsworth's and Sarnoff's stories spill out on stage in this play, depicted in short, intense scenes by a corps of 19 expert actors. The play reaches its climax when the stories inevitably intertwine: Farnsworth has created a functioning, if imperfect, prototype of television, and Sarnoff wants it (but wants neither to pay for it nor to share ownership of it). Did Sarnoff, via his employee Vladimir Zworykin, steal Farnsworth's secret? Did Farnsworth shoot himself in the foot by naively believing in the free exchange of scientific knowledge among colleagues?
Embodying the play's disparate heroes are Hank Azaria (as Sarnoff) and Jimmi Simpson (as Farnsworth), both of whom do exceptional work here. Azaria gets the complexity of a man who is at once unrelentingly tough and dewily idealistic; Simpson shows us a phenomenal genius whose brain never stops working and a vulnerable and uncertain man straining to contain that genius. Their performances are both top-notch. Supporting them are a splendid ensemble and a savvy physical production that boasts a versatile unit set by Klara Zieglerova and invaluably evocative costumes by David C. Woolard.
Sorkin ultimately does not stick strictly to the facts in his play, but in presenting these two larger-than-life, utterly American archetypes, he fashions a provocative, intelligent, and stimulating drama. The facts of the case and even the ultimate "meaning" of television prove less significant than the facts and meanings of his two protagonists' lives. In the scope and audacity of their startling visions, these inauspicious-seeming fellows—one an unsophisticated boy who taught himself science on his father's farm, the other an immigrant who taught himself English on the streets of New York—represent the promise and hope of America.