ALBANY — Sprouting from the pen of the usually polemic playwright Aaron Sorkin, “The Farnsworth Invention” is more of a staged essay about the moral corruption of corporate America than an emotionally involving evening of theater. You probably will feel much more intelligent when the lecture ends, but any compassion for either of the main characters at the fall of the final curtain is certainly in doubt.
The story is based on the true story of Idaho farm boy Philo T. Farnsworth, who took inspiration from the even lines of his father’s plowed field to envision a device that could transmit moving pictures through the air and Russian immigrant David Sarnoff, who rose from telegraph operator to head of the renowned RCA with his bold vision for the future of radio and entertainment. The production follows the struggle between the two as they purportedly battle to create one of mankind’s greatest inventions, television.
That is not to intimate that everything that happens during The Farnsworth Invention is factual, some is admittedly fabricated, especially the second act. Therein lies one of the mysteries to this piece — if Mr. Sorkin played around with the historical facts surrounding the invention of television, why didn’t he employ more dramatic license and create some real tension? Intellectually the play sparkles but dramatically it’s a disappointment. That is not to say that the evening is dull — far from it. Sorkin’s mastery of dramatic spin and his well-practiced rapid-fire non-stop data dump of dialogue keeps one focused and alert.
Astutely staged by Aaron Holbritter, the production follows Sorkin’s stride, never dragging, stuffing so much interesting science and story into 110 minutes that an intermission almost seems an intrusion. Thankfully all of the actors are up to the challenging pace — or they are drinking a lot of Red Bull. Most of the cast morph into myriad characters at the drop of a hat. But two create just one character. Tom Templeton’s use of an “Everyman” approach to inventor Philo Farnsworth, is a winning choice. Engaging, straightforward and quick to the point, his solid and sure explanations of scientific methods inform us but also reveal the innocence of a naïve man who sees only the elusive goal of television — leaving him ill prepared for his present world.
Isaac Newberry’s Sarnoff lacks most of the character’s chutzpah and arrogance. Robbing Sarnoff of this needed swagger also robs most of the essential tension between him and Farnsworth. There should be passion behind Sarnoff’s actions other than the preferred excuse of “its just good business.” There needs to be a confidence and certitude presented, which here is only indicated. The fault here lies more with the script than with the actor. Newberry’s performance is ever engaging and very fine.
Actually all of Holbritter’s ensemble does great work and allows area theater vets to create some memorable corporate archetypes, number crunchers and science nerds. Greg Borucki’s blowhard businessman Gorrell, Richard Ring’s annoyingly appeasing investor Everson and Nate Beynon’s acerbic assistant prove that stereotypes can be funny when artfully handled. Rob Hill’s monosyllabic deadpan delivery is spot on. Briavel Schultz’s Betty, the innocent but knowing secretary, and Jennifer Bullington as Sarnoff’s wife Liz, create big interest in characters with very little stage time. Kyrie Ellison, as Pem, Farnsworth’s wife, winningly combines concern and comedy.
Even with a cast of 17 on stage at the same time, Rich Montena succeeds in creating a simple and functional set design that never seems cramped. Marred only by inconsistent and less than acceptable lighting (ironically, not getting the light right is the major crisis the inventor faces), the scenes effortlessly slide from workshop, to bar, to board room.
Farnsworth is a curious invention. Part fact, part fiction, but wrongly balanced. Still intriguing and immensely entertaining, it’s a program well worth tuning into.
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