EmptyMusic Box Theater, New York
Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention," about the bitter conflicts surrounding the invention of television, contains both the flaws and the virtues that have been so long evident in his work for the same medium. Intelligent and featuring plenty of witty dialogue, it also suffers from occasional smugness and a tendency toward clunky dramaturgy that detracts from its overall impact. Superbly acted in this ambitious production, it certainly merits respect if not adulation.
The play, which has been criticized in some quarters for playing fast and loose with the facts, concerns two fascinating historical figures: Philo Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), the brilliant young engineer who started working on the principles of transmitting pictures through the air when he was still in high school, and David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria), the Russian-born immigrant whose meteoric business career led to his becoming the head of the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA.
The play depicts Farnsworth's efforts to develop his prototype despite a series of daunting technical obstacles, while Sarnoff became increasingly frustrated with his company's efforts at solving the problems. Eventually, both succeeded in a manner of sorts, with a complicating factor being the involvement of a Russian scientist, Vladimir Zworykin (Bruce McKenzie), who may or may not have stolen some of Farnsworth's ideas.
The resulting legal struggle between the two visionaries resulted in an essential victory for Sarnoff, who went on to take the lion's share of the glory while Farnsworth became a nearly forgotten figure.
This complicated tale is rendered in highly theatrical fashion, with the two leading characters offering their subjective perspectives, which at one point includes a meeting between the two that was entirely invented by the playwright. Ultimately, the audience is given leeway to make their own judgment.
While there is much fascinating material here, it is not always rendered with sufficient clarity. And while the play is quite enthralling when dealing with the contrasting early quests of the two dogged men, it tends to become bogged down in dense minutiae when depicting the highly technical and legal aspects of their battle.
Director Des McAnuff -- working with an abstract set that must encompass a wide variety of locations, including even Radio City Music Hall -- has provided a fast-paced production that ably compensates for the occasional informational excess.
The work's impact is greatly aided by the compelling performances from its lead actors. Azaria perfectly conveys Sarnoff's hard-driving ambition and complete conviction in his own principles, while Simpson movingly and often amusingly portrays Farnsworth's obsessive brilliance, as well as the vulnerabilities that helped bring about his decline.
The large ensemble cast handles with skill their difficult assignments of portraying dozens of characters who figured in the story, including, in one particularly fun scene, United Artists founders Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION
Presented by Dodger Properties
and Steven Spielberg for Rabbit Ear
in association with Fred Zollo and
Jeffrey Sine, Dancap Prods. and Latitude Link/Pelican Group
Playwright: Aaron Sorkin
Director: Des McAnuff
Set designer: Klara Zieglerova
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Walter Trarbach
Original music: Andrew Lippa
David Sarnoff: Hank Azaria
Philo T. Farnsworth: Jimmi Simpson
Lizette Sarnoff, others: Nadia Bowers
Pem's Father, others: Kyle Fabel
Russian Officer, others: Maurice Godin
Young Philo T. Farnsworth, others: Christian M. Johansen
Wilkins, others: Aaron Krohn
Vladimir Zworykin, others: Bruce McKenzie