Aaron Sorkin’s new play The Farnsworth Invention is an engrossing tale chronicling the invention of television and the subsequent clash over patent rights. As drama the evening lacks tension, but Des McAnuff’s beautifully acted stylish production moves along with such razor sharp precision that the unfolding events make for a compelling, richly satisfying evening nonetheless.
The playwright is returning to Broadway 18 years after his memorable courtroom drama “A Few Good Men,” debuted here heralding him as a major talent and launching his Hollywood career. Sorkin’s play was made into a successful film and this Christmas his latest “Charlie Wilson’s War” directed by Mike Nichols will be released around the country. In between he has spent much time writing for television winning four Emmy Awards for the outstanding drama series “The West Wing,” and recently producing the NBC television series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
Set in the 1920s with smart crisp dialogue, which has become Sorkin’s specialty, The Farnsworth Invention presents two sides of the ongoing race to become the first to create the technology that would ultimately be known as television. The shrewdly developed detailed tale is a bold mix of fact and fiction that has apparently enraged historians over inaccuracies in the text.
At the center of the conflict are two men, Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), the boy genius of a potato farmer who was inspired with the idea for television while plowing a field, and David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) a Russian immigrant and entrepreneurial genius, who built RCA, NBC and Radio City Music Hall. Although lacking character development the heavy expositional story embracing several themes is amazingly fascinating and brisk. Sorkin, a skilled craftsmen, gives us the naivety and purity of the little guy versus the calculated savvy of big business while effectively moving us back and forth emotionally between the two combatants.
One shortcoming, however, Sorkin tags on an unnecessary fictional scene near the end of the play, where the playwright paints an imaginary meeting between the two characters. He gives Sarnoff a duality that feels manipulative and artificial, almost as if he needed to soft pedal the truth for his NBC bosses.
Des McAnuff, who pared down the fabulous hit musical Jersey Boys, has effectively streamlined the evening giving needed urgency and dramatic impact to the entertaining production. He navigates 19 actors playing more than 100 characters in 50 scenes on a simple modern black and white movable set with red highlights by Klara Zieglerova. The actor’s, as well, shine under the director’s knowing guidance.
Newcomer Jimmi Simpson is marvelous as the tragic Farnsworth turning his struggles into a nicely nuanced intelligent characterization and Hank Azaria imparts charm and charisma to the brilliant mogul Sarnoff. Also excellent with too little to do is Alexandra Wilson as Farnsworth’s wife.
Look for an even better realized film in the near future, especially since the Broadway production seems tailor made for the big screen with only minor tuning necessary.
By Gordin & Chrisitano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
The Farnsworth Invention opened at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street St. between Broadway and 8th Avenue, on December 3, 2007. Tickets are available by calling Telecharge.com at 212-239-6200, 800-432-7250 outside the NY metro area or at the theater box office.