Saturday, October 20, 2007

That's What The Means Are For

"The Farnsworth Invention" at the Music Box Theatre, October 18, 2007

Aaron Sorkin returns to Broadway (not just Broadway, but back to the Music Box Theatre) after nearly 20 years with his docu-drama of the birth of television. It's oddly appropriate that Mr. Sorkin pays such tribute to the medium which has brought him such well-deserved success.

He positions the story from the perspectives of David Sarnoff, the RCA CEO who saw the potential of television and Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually invented it. Mr. Sorkin has done well by enlisting the help of Des McAnuff and most of the artistic team he used in 2005's "Jersey Boys." What we get is a well-paced, slickly-staged and often moving back story of the politics behind the major advancement of the twentieth century. His mastery of tech and plot effectively pound the theory of TV multiple times without the first moment of feeling redundant.

There's a nice page on the show's website that outlines the history. Check it out so I don't have to bore you with the background here.

The show opens with Mr. Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) narrating the story of Mr. Farnsworth's first idea of how to make television work as a 9th grader in Utah. The young Mr. Farnsworth is a highly self-confident young man, quite assured of his intelligence and the validity of his idea. Time skips forward a bit and the now-grown Mr. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) seems to have lost the smooth confidence of his youth, although he remains committed to actualizing his concept.

Farnsworth takes his turn to facilitate Mr. Sarnoff's journey from Russia to America, teaching himself un-accented English along way his way to the top of RCA. This point-counterpoint approach minimizes what might have been some dreary exposition, heightening the drama as the competition to be the first to have a successful prototype for television. In addition to Farnsworth, both RCA and Westinghouse were working on their own ideas to achieve what seemed at times, impossible. RCA bought Westinghouse out of the picture, but still couldn't get a working model. Fast forward through the death of Farnsworth's child amid some corporate espionage to fix the two approaches and the medium is officially born. Also born with it was a series of lawsuits which eventually grant the patent to RCA, leaving Farnsworth in relative ignominy.

Sorkin does give us a fictional account of an encounter between Farnsworth and Sarnoff following the verdict. He provides a moving moment when Sarnoff recognizes Farnsworth's achievement, offering him a job at RCA to continue his work. Bitter and defeated, Farnsworth rejects the offer. As man lands on the moon for the first time in 1969, Farnsworth is shown in a bar, basically drunk, outlining on cocktail napkins his concept to achieve nuclear fusion.

As David Sarnoff, Mr. Azaria confirms his skill and talent as a stage actor. His presence demands your attention in this role of a man born to lead, yet feels the sting of the pain his actions sometimes inflict. This Sarnoff grows slowly into corporate arrogance. As he says, "They say the end justifies the means. That's what the means are for."

Mr. Simpson's Farnsworth is a talented genius, flawed by his focus on his invention. Stumbling drunk, or painfully honest, he is a hero who is never properly recognized for his contribution during his lifetime. I did find the missing self-confidence displayed by his younger portrayal a bit confusing at first. Perhaps it was Mr. Sorkin's writing that effected such a change as the cost of a formal education in the period.

The supporting cast is terrific as well, each actor playing multiple roles. Standouts include Maurice Godin, Bruce McKenzie and Jim Ortleib.

Mr. McAnuff has once again proven his talent, directing this play with taste and restraint, bringing out fine performances from this large cast. I must admit that when he spoke to the audience just before curtain, I was a bit concerned. Only in their fourth preview at the time, he wanted the audience to be aware that the show was still undergoing some changes and there was a chance of a "train wreck" which might stop the show. I didn't see the first moment's hesitation by anyone in the cast.

Klara Zieglerova's sets ring familiar from her efforts on "Jersey Boys" with a two-level set, exposed steel beams in black and red, nicely lit by the efforts of Howell Binkley. David Woolard's period-appropriate costumes are spot-on.

I think we have the first best play contender of the season with this production.

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