Aaron Sorkin clearly owes a little something to television, and "The West Wing" creator has decided to pay some of that little something back in "The Farnsworth Invention."
Sorkin's tale tells the story of TV pioneer Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), his triumphs and travails, the latter centered around TV super-mogul David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) and his pet organization, RCA.
But Sorkin has gotten some - possibly a lot - of his facts wrong. Following an apparently undisputed feature about Farnsworth in The Post last week, Sorkin's producers are now calling this "a memory play."
Even Shakespeare was somewhat historically shaky in that "memory play" he called "Richard III," in which he made the king a hunchback. But Shakespeare knew "the play's the thing," not the historical superstructure beneath it.
A good story is a good story, even if, like an unkempt rosebush, it needs pruning.
What Sorkin finds up his playwright's sleeve is one of drama's eternal themes, about Faust (the inventor Farnsworth) and Mephistopheles (the conniving tempter/exploiter Sarnoff). Since the TV business always needs a twist, Sorkin's Faust resists temptation - and dies, it seems, a drunk.
Presumably the original idea was for a movie or TV script, but this play - Sorkin's first to be produced here since his modestly successful courtroom drama of a Marine coverup in "A Few Good Men" - may be a toe-testing tryout for an eventual screenplay.
Sorkin's take on the Farnsworth/Sarnoff standoff would be better suited to a screen, either big or small. Even now, while crackling with crisp dialogue, "The Farnsworth Invention" often has the air of a clumsy stage adaptation of, say, "Citizen Kane."
Its very busyness detracts from it as a stage play - plus the fact that all but two of its 19 actors play multiple roles.
This is particularly risky with an actor of indelible image, such as the burly, commendable and very noticeable Michael Mulhern, who plays "Leslie Gorrell and others." We've scarcely gotten to know him as Leslie Gorrell (whoever he was) then Mulhern's off and running, playing unnamed "others."
No doubt Shakespeare faced in "Richard III" the same problems as Sorkin here. But I know Shakespeare, and Sorkin is no Shakespeare. He's not even an Orson Welles.
To his considerable credit, director Des McAnuff - who brilliantly staged such broad-spanned musicals as "Jersey Boys" and "The Who's Tommy" - manages to keep the central story line intact as Sorkin wanders along the wilder shores of biography.
He's helped by the smartly minimalist stage design of Klara Zieglerova, and the general performance of his Protean cast, particularly Simpson as the innocent genius, a Jimmy-Stewartishly rumpled Farnsworth, and the smoothly opportunistic and charmingly ruthless Azaria as the nicely tailored Sarnoff.
It all makes for a decent night out in the theater - especially if you can imagine you're watching a movie.
With billionaire parents now producing bar mitzvah celebrations and sweet-16 parties as if they were major motion pictures, it’s only a matter of time before this spare-no-expense approach is applied to their kids’ school projects. Imagine that Mr. Hedge Fund, with money to burn and many favors to call in, imports a crack combination of writer, director and actors to put across Junior’s oral report with envy-making, A-worthy flair.
The resulting effort might well be something like “The Farnsworth Invention,” the new play by Aaron Sorkin that had its strike-delayed opening last night at the Music Box Theater. This information-crammed, surface-skimming biodrama about the creators of television suggests nothing so much as a classroom presentation on a seven-figure budget.
The show certainly deserves high marks for all those traits that exacting schoolteachers hold dear: conciseness, legibility, correct use of topic sentences, evidence in defense of two sides of an argument and colorful examples to support the main thesis.
Such virtues are given efficient life onstage by a team that includes Des McAnuff, a director known for melding slickness and liveliness (“The Who’s Tommy,” “Big River”), and two appealing stars who hold your attention even when the subject is cathode-ray tubes: Hank Azaria and Jimmi Simpson. Then there’s Mr. Sorkin, who knows from television, having become famous as the originator of the celebrated White House series “The West Wing.” (He is also the author of the pot-boiling military play and movie “A Few Good Men.”)
Whether these combined talents make for compelling theater as well as a peppy educational experience is another matter. “The Farnsworth Invention” — which follows the converging fortunes of Philo T. Farnsworth, a boy genius from Idaho, and David Sarnoff, a New York broadcasting czar born in Russia — is packed with the stuff of high drama: corporate espionage, the death of a child, the Wall Street crash, village-burning Cossacks, even the sinking of the Titanic (which figured in the young Sarnoff’s rise at a telegraph company) and a slew of those eureka moments you associate with easy-reading biographies about scientific discoveries.
And yet you’re likely to leave “The Farnsworth Invention” feeling that you have just watched an animated Wikipedia entry, fleshed out with the sort of anecdotal scenes that figure in “re-enactments” on E! channel documentaries and true-crime shows. This two-hour play is a fast-moving sequence of reflex-stimulating information- and emotion-bites. It never pauses long enough to find depth in any of them.
Mr. Sorkin clearly had higher intentions. His model appears to have been two works by the British playwright Michael Frayn that turn dry academic subjects into juicy explorations of human mystery: “Copenhagen” (about atomic physics per Bohr and Heisenberg) and “Democracy” (German parliamentary politics in the age of Willy Brandt).
Like those plays “The Farnsworth Invention” uses multiple narrators and alternative versions of the truth. Sarnoff provides a running commentary on the events in Farnsworth’s life, from boyhood on, while Farnsworth does the same for Sarnoff, with each occasionally interrupting the other on disputed matters of fact.
Both men, in different ways, might be considered the fathers of television. Farnsworth, working on his own in San Francisco, was the first to transmit a moving image, while Sarnoff saw and quickly developed the technology’s potential as a cultural and commercial phenomenon.
Though they never met (despite a scene in the play imagining a meeting), each was acutely aware of the other, and their interests collided in court over the patent to what was essentially Farnsworth’s invention. They neatly embody the ever-popular dichotomy of the wool-gathering genius and the hard-minded pragmatist. And while the script never allows Mr. Azaria and Mr. Simpson to venture far beyond this dualist setup, they strike their characters’ single notes with euphonious charm.
Mr. Sorkin and Mr. McAnuff deftly guide you through a labyrinth of scientific and legal exposition, with the ensemble members providing a sort of time-line choral commentary on historical happenings. (Mr. McAnuff’s staging of these sequences brings to mind Michael Blakemore’s direction of “Democracy,” while Klara Zieglerova’s two-tiered set recalls Peter J. Davison’s for the same production.)
Detours into the personal lives of the play’s antithetical leading characters (especially that of Farnsworth, a heavy drinker who was devastated by the death of his young son) are delivered with telegraphic expediency. And there are pithy asides on Sarnoff’s losing battle with the encroaching commercialization of radio and television, via the selling of advertising time.
That’s a lot of territory to cover in two hours. It’s understandable that Mr. Sorkin resorts to the shorthand of biopic clichés to convey his characters’ states of mind. But, oh, how they cloy as they accumulate.
Sarnoff on Farnsworth’s future wife, Pem (Alexandra Wilson): “She thought he was crazy, but she wanted to be with him no matter what absurd future he had in mind for electrons.” An excited Farnsworth to his assistants: “You go get a generator. Cliff and I are going to start building a lab.” Sarnoff’s wife, Lizette (Nadia Bowers), to her husband (witheringly of course): “I think you just stole television.”
The script is also fat with brand-name references that, when first used, cause the audience to go “oooh” in recognition. (Of Sarnoff’s new corporate headquarters: “He called it Radio City.”) A similar response is elicited by the trafficking in statements that, seen in hindsight, acquire the synthetic sheen of easy irony, as when an idealistic Sarnoff says, of television, “It’s gonna change everything. It’s gonna end ignorance and misunderstanding.”
Having made a great success in television, Mr. Sorkin knows its pitfalls and limitations inside out. But it’s hard to avoid the impression that, for all its high-reaching ambitions, “The Farnsworth Invention” often shares the glibness and reductionism of which mainstream television is regularly accused. Besides, in recent years, many television dramas — including Mr. Sorkin’s “West Wing,” in its first seasons — have exhibited far more complexity and shading than “The Farnsworth Invention” ever allows.
Chronicling the birth of television and the ensuing patent war through the clash between an enterprising scientific genius from Utah and a Russian immigrant turned hard-nosed corporate honcho, "The Farnsworth Invention" tells a fascinating story. But despite Des McAnuff's stylish production, tells is the key word here, not dramatizes. Aaron Sorkin's first new play since "A Few Good Men" in 1989 was originally conceived as a screenplay. The plot-heavy drama is light on fully fleshed-out characters or subtext, making it likely to play more satisfyingly when it inevitably reverts to being a film or cable project.
Not that some audiences won't respond to Sorkin's ingratiating approach, his manicured dialogue and the jingoistic fervor of his paean to good old American innovation -- to the pioneering spirit of pushing boundaries and boldly exploring new frontiers. They just won't necessarily be the sophisticated audiences seeing Broadway plays on the same block, like "Rock 'n' Roll" or "August: Osage County."
It's interesting that McAnuff, set designer Klara Zieglerova and lighting chief Howell Binkley last teamed on "Jersey Boys." There are distinct similarities here in the foot-on-the-accelerator direction as well as in the physical production and extensive use of direct-address narration to trudge through acres of exposition. The chief difference, though, is that "Jersey Boys" has emotional texture and clearly defined conflicts while "Farnsworth" never fully moves beyond its stream of overexplained factoids.
What's worse is that it's morally questionable. Sorkin constructs the story as a David vs. Goliath tale in which RCA chief and NBC founder David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) uses spy tactics to take advantage of developments by Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) and his team, allowing stymied, RCA-funded engineer Vladimir Zworykin (Bruce McKenzie) to make the crucial breakthrough and RCA, after a legal battle, to claim the patent.
Sorkin wants to have it both ways. He depicts Sarnoff as single-minded in his focus on personal glory and corporate profit to the exclusion of all other concerns. But then after crushing Farnsworth and consigning the true inventor of television to obscurity (in lengthy legal proceedings reduced to a single perfunctory scene), Sarnoff gets to imagine the rapprochement between the two men and acknowledge the underdog's achievement. He also gets to show tearful remorse and big-picture perspective in a manipulative closing speech.
Post-Enron, do we really need Aaron Sorkin putting a human face on corporate greed and bullying?
It might have provided a subtler, more bittersweet coda had the writer mentioned that, following an appeal, the U.S. patent office upheld its decision to award Farnsworth priority in the development of electronic imaging, forcing RCA to pay him royalties.
Despite some selective editing of history, Sorkin's aim clearly is to avoid simplistic black-and-white portrayals, instead giving both men a certain nobility as key figures in the invention of a world-changing medium. And it's probably not surprising the writer might want to avoid painting NBC -- his home on both "The West Wing" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" -- in too villainous a light.
But all this diplomacy tends to muddy the central conflict, which is not helped by the fact Farnsworth doesn't even know the two men are adversaries until three-quarters of the way through the play.
To his credit, Azaria -- outfitted in classic mogul mode with pinstriped power suits and flawless Brylcreemed hair -- brings charm, charisma and nuance to a self-contradictory role that's heavily oratorical. Sorkin does go to pains to acknowledge the man's entrepreneurial brilliance in transitioning radio from a communications service medium to one of information and entertainment, being on the vanguard with advertising and consumer culture, and a visionary regarding the impact of television.
It too often seems easy, however, for the writer to milk humor by imposing improbable foresight or obliviousness on the characters about the weight of things to come.
The standout performance of the solid ensemble comes from Simpson, who creates the most fully rounded figure onstage. His struggle with depression, alcoholism and frustration over his failure to steer his discovery through the crucial final step make Farnsworth a sad, soulful figure, played by the Broadway newcomer with intelligence and increasingly troubled sensitivity.
Alexandra Wilson economically suggests the depths of Philo's supportive wife, Pem, and their scenes together -- particularly following a personal tragedy that prefigures the inventor's devastating professional failure -- give an indication of how this material might resonate emotionally with more detailed character exploration.
McAnuff makes resourceful use of the twin levels of Zieglerova's set, with an elevated catwalk over the main playing area, showing a strong eye for compositional formations and swift efficiency in marshaling the large cast. Binkley's precision lighting also contributes to lend the talky play visual life, appropriately heating up the underside of the upper deck like a copper-wired grid panel. David C. Woolard supplies the handsome 1920s and '30s costumes.
However, effective as it is at times, the production's reliance on Andrew Lippa's cinematic underscoring (reminiscent of Philip Glass' work) to shape the mood only points up the inability of the writing to perform that task alone.
The subject matter here is engrossing enough to yield a multi-episode docudrama, and its content ensures that "The Farnsworth Invention" is never uninteresting. But when the playwright enlists his two protagonists to talk the audience through both the human drama and the scientific back story -- pointedly indicating what's important and what will be later on -- the dramaturgical laziness undermines even the most robust narrative.