Alex Organ as Philo T. Farnsworth, the rightful inventor of the basic device behind television — in Theatre Three’s The Farnsworth Invention
The invention of television may be as dramatic a story as any show TV has aired. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reviews a stage play getting its North Texas premiere at Theatre Three, a play that lays out the decades-long battle for control of the airwaves.
- Dallas Voice review
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- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
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The Farnsworth Invention at Theatre Three is an extreme rarity: an American play that actually concerns history. And science. Of course, it’s the history and science of television, but still … name another drama that made it to Broadway in recent years that discusses lightwaves or the development of modern media.
Fittingly, author Aaron Sorkin is a TV and movie pro, best known as the writer of The West Wing and The Social Network. He’s extremely skilled at snappy dialogue, quick cuts, mixing up big drama with both comic relief and actor-y showcases. In fact, Farnsworth, before it ran briefly on Broadway, was a movie script — and it shows.
Sorkin can be a slick, glib writer, condensing messy situations and issues into an entertaining crispness. We feel we’ve actually gained some understanding of a complex human reality when Sorkin has just neatly balanced out our sympathies. Simple test of Sorkin’s talent for dialogue vs. a real grasp of moral conundrums: Onstage, his military drama, A Few Good Men, seemed like a great deal of compelling courtroom bluster about not much. Everyone remembers “You can’t handle the truth!” from the film version. Can anyone explain what the “truth” was or what the court martial was about?
With The Farnsworth Invention, Sorkin packs in a lot of information about cathode rays and corporate espionage. Yet he keeps it quippish and engaging — and I’m not complaining about that. He does this all the while relating the story of how David Sarnoff, the head of RCA and the founder of NBC, stole the electronic building-blocks of television from an Idaho farmboy named Philo T. Farnsworth.
Farnsworth figured out the way images could be broadcast and received electronically — while still a teenager. Sarnoff, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, gained a vision of mass communication as entertainment and cultural uplift, and this was back when radio was still a glorified telegraph, a single individual transmitting crackly messages to another individual. Farnsworth imagined how to build a better mousetrap with vacuum tubes sending images. For his part, Sarnoff wanted to distribute and control the delivery of the cheese. The one is 19th-century thinking, even if it involves electrons; the other is 20th-century thinking; it’s about information networks — even if they’re enforced through legal thuggery. (“Nobody broke the law!” is Sarnoff’s best defense to his wife.)
The Farnsworth Invention is another drama shaped like Amadeus: Sarnoff plays Salieri, our conspiring narrator, the one person who truly appreciates Farnsworth’s genius, even as he tries to co-opt it. Sorkin gives the impression that there are disputing co-narrators, but onstage, while Farnsworth does interrupt Sarnoff’s narration occasionally, the two don’t actually argue much. Farnsworth doesn’t present, say, a fundamentally different view of how mass communication should work. Or how things turned out between the two men. They just tussle over who did what, with Sarnoff himself conceding he’s embellished things (the concession makes him more appealing). Sarnoff is still the real stage manager, setting the scenes and explaining what’s going on.
Jakie Cabe (above): “I’m David Sarnoff. There’s a rule in story telling that says you never tell your audience something they already know. But I’m going to chance it anyway. The only reason you can see me right now is light is reflecting off me. Light bounces. And I want to make sure that everyone understands this because twenty minutes in, you’ll be asking, ‘What the hell’s happening?’”
What’s happening is a twinned bio-drama that’s a great deal of fun to watch, although that’s partly because Sorkin seriously re-writes history to even out the stakes. Otherwise, this would be just a morally black-and-white story of the nice-inventor-crushed-by-a-phalanx-of-lawyers, another case of American ingenuity sacrificed to American capitalism. So on one side, Sorkin makes Sarnoff torn, agonizing over how his vision of TV as a force for good was lost to boob-tube advertising. On the other, he makes Farnsworth a tragic failure. In reality, Farnsworth won a million-dollar settlement against RCA. True, he died in obscurity — and with a drinking problem — but after losing control of TV, he still went on to become a leading pioneer in advanced electronics.
We can overlook much of this — including Sorkin’s talky, off-the-point ending — because it is fun to watch, thanks to Theatre Three’s crackerjack production. It’s a triumph for director and set designer Jeffrey Schmidt. Judging from the trailer of the Broadway show, it had a relatively conventional-looking, realistic set. But this is a play about media, about controlling light and images, and Schmidt turns Theatre Three into a fantasy of an old-school TV studio, a land of giants long ago, with the entire stage floor designed like a test pattern and huge spotlights bracketing the set. Thanks to Amanda West’s smart lighting and video work, we see a stark, noir-ish world, both stylish and a little grainy and fading-to-black. All this suits Sorkin’s period simulation, his wisecracking talk, his TV-drama moral universe, his penchant for easy legal face-offs. One half-expects to see Perry Mason or Rod Serling walk onstage.
The show’s performances are anchored by the two leads: the superb Alex Organ as the recklessly innocent Philo Farnsworth — it’s a complete about-face from the actor’s utterly convincing, cold-hearted heel in Second Thought’s Red Light Winter — and Jakie Cabe as Sarnoff. Considering Hank Azaria played the role on Broadway, Cabe makes casting sense as perhaps our most Azaria-ish local actor. With seeming ease, he fills out what Sorkin needs in Sarnoff: a talent for quips-with-an-edge but also a sad-eyed sense that he can’t help his drive to survive, his need to win. Cabe, Organ and Schmidt make this Farnsworth Invention breathe life — and look sharp.
Hey. It’s a show about TV. Looking sharp counts for a lot.