The Farnsworth Invention, playing at The Music Box Theatre through March 2, is about two men with obsessions. The first is David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria), president of RCA and a fledgling media mogul. At the start of the play, Sarnoff is incensed at one of RCA’s affiliates for selling blocks of advertising time during their “informational programming.” The broadcasters will lose credibility, he argues, if the weather man is also being paid to sell the audience umbrellas. Sarnoff sets off on a crusade to ensure that his company isn’t licensing its patents out to any affiliates who aren’t using the technology to promote good taste and the public good.
The other man is Philo Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), a boy genius raised on a potato farm. At fourteen, Farnsworth thinks up a way to transmit moving pictures through the air, and in his 20’s he finally gets the funding to build a lab and test his theory.
When Sarnoff learns that Farnsworth’s ragtag team of researchers is on the cusp of creating the first working television technology, he wages a furious campaign to gain control of the invention and all of its patents. He pours money into RCA’s own research and development department, but when they are hindered by some design flaw that the play tries to explain clearly but can’t, he resorts to the most congenial case of industrial espionage ever dramatized.
The story plays fast and loose with historical facts, but that doesn’t matter. What matters to playwright Aaron Sorkin, who likes writing about smart people arguing over high ideals (A Few Good Men, The West Wing), is what the invention represents to each man. Sarnoff expects it to “end ignorance, end illiteracy, end war.” Farnsworth, buried in his research as a way of avoiding coming to terms with the death of his son, declares, “One day, a man will walk on the moon. And everybody will get to see it on television.”
These aspirations are, of course, both funny and poignant. But the play spends too much time trying to get us to understand the technology that Farnsworth is inventing, and so the humor, hope, and humanity of the characters can get lost.
Ultimately, the play is just witty and entertaining enough to be worth your time, but only really excels whenever Simpson and Azaria—whose characters are also our dueling narrators—stop talking to the audience and start talking to each other. The two leads find a rhythm and naturalism in the dialogue that makes the scenes they share gripping. Sadly, too many members of the supporting cast can’t quite keep up.
In the climax, a fictionalized argument between Sarnoff and Farnsworth following a patent trial, Farnsworth recognizes that the invention they’ve been fighting over isn’t being used as the utopian tool they had both dreamed it would become, and takes Sarnoff to task for it.
“Once you’re good at delivering consumers to advertisers,” Sarnoff laments, “you’ll never be good at anything else.”