Farnsworth Redux

This is the second of two reviews I've written of The Farnsworth Invention. Both were written for the same publication (The Redeemer Arts Greenhouse Newsletter) and I don't know which they're going to run; I'd prefer that they run the first, because I think it's better and I'd rather have the better one in my portfolio lookin' all pretty and printed.

The Farnsworth Invention
Directed by Des McAnuff, Written by Aaron Sorkin

“Do you know who Philo Farnsworth was? He invented television. I don’t mean he invented television like Uncle Miltie—I mean he invented the television! In a little house in Provo, Utah, at a time when transmitting moving pictures through the air would be like me saying I’ve figured out a way to beam us aboard the Starship Enterprise. He was a visionary, and he died broke and without fanfare.”

At least, that’s the angle of the historically-debated story that Aaron Sorkin wrote nine years ago on an episode of his much-acclaimed, little-seen Sports Night. It’s also the perspective on history he ultimately espoused in his recent historical fiction The Farnsworth Invention, which played at The Music Box Theatre through March 2. 

The play follows Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) and RCA head David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) as they race to develop the invention that would end up dominating mass communication in the 20th century.  Sorkin’s drama plays fast and loose with historical facts, but that doesn’t matter. What matters to Sorkin, who has made a career out of not-so-subtly voicing his opinions on politics, the media, and social values through the mouths of his characters, is what the invention represents to each man. Sarnoff expects it to “end ignorance, end illiteracy, end war.” Farnsworth, drowning in alcohol and hiding in his research to avoid coming to terms with his son’s death, declares, “One day, a man will walk on the moon. And everybody will get to see it on television.”

These aspirations are far less partisan than Sorkin’s usual fare—in a show about sportscasters, for example, he wrote an episode about one character’s views on legalizing marijuana; a series about sketch comedy actors featured a three-episode arc about premature troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a series-long sub-plot about the social impact of the religious right.

Whether he shares his character’s political leanings or not, he is a singular talent when it comes to writing dialogue. It is that panache which brought viewers of all stripes to The West Wing and which won his short-lived Sports Night a devoted following. (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, on the other hand, never gained a strong fanbase.)

To anyone who has watched a season of any of those shows, The Farnsworth Invention may have a familiar feel. To someone who has watched every season of those shows, multiple times, it feels like a low-rent cover band. The songs are the same—the characters are arguing with unrealistic fluency about artistic and journalistic integrity, addiction, workaholism, and social responsibility—but the rhythm section feels off-measure. The play only really excels when 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 team can’t quite keep up.

After the fictionalized argument between Sarnoff and Farnsworth that constitutes the play’s climax, Sarnoff soliloquizes about the importance of his work. Taking a monologue directly from a West Wing episode, he declares, “We came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire! And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is on a timeline of explorations and this is what’s next.” If that seems a little awkward and grandiose, it should—the monologue was originally written about deep-space exploration.

But Azaria makes it work.

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