Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Farnsworth Invention"

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note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth

The Farnsworth Invention"

A Review by Sheila Barth

As theatergoers milled in the lobby of the Arsenal Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater, waiting for the house to open, excitement permeated their conversation.

They were waiting to see Flat Earth Theatre’s production of Emmy Award-winning-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s two-act, two-hour play, “The Farnsworth Invention,” that quickly amassed critics’ and sold-out audiences’ praise. The big drawing card for the show, (it closed June 7), was public anticipation it had to be exceptional, given Sorkin  created hit TV series “The West Wing” and “The Social Network”.

Theatergoers also knew the play explored the advent of television, starting in the early 1920s, and the dispute about its creator - inventor Philo Farnsworth or RCA mogul David Sarnoff, with RCA inventor Vladimir Zworkyin.

Pre-show information warns theatergoers the play contains several facts, peppered with inaccuracies and fiction, including the outcome. Sorkin instead concentrated on the rivalry between Farnsworth and Sarnoff, their humble beginnings, rise to fame, and glaringly different fates.

Sorkin infuses a scenario near the highly-charged end, in which Sarnoff and Farnsworth, grandson of a Mormon pioneer, electronic genius and concert violinist, engage in a heated confrontation. Sarnoff, who’s narrating the final scene, quickly admits it never really happened, but appends that information.

The result is a fast-paced, fascinating glimpse into the past, the race to create television, the lives of these two men, whose goals are honorable but business tactics glaringly differ, and their immense contribution to global society.

Sorkin also employs a fascinating theatrical technique, having the two adversaries conversationally narrate each other’s story to theatergoers, while simultaneously portraying their roles. 

Director Sarah Gazdowicz helms a dedicated ensemble cast, led by outstanding stars Chris Larson portraying humble farm boy-brilliant science prodigy Farnsworth and Michael Fisher as slick entrepreneur Sarnoff.

Sorkin’s dialogue, Gazdowicz’s direction, and the cast’s timing keep the play moving briskly. Gazdowicz successfully employs a chorus effect to many scenes, with secondary and ensemble characters creating their individual impact in this intimate space. 

Theatergoers are located nearby, on both sides of designer Rebecca Lehrhoff’s central stage floor. Lehrhoff doesn’t clutter the play with a dominant set or large props. Instead, the floor is “decorated” with white lines, leading to a frequently-used, two-sided chalkboard. The lines are symbolic of those Farnsworth,conceived as a teen-ager in Idaho as a basis for producing principles of electronic television. Farnsworth was so ahead of his time, his teachers and classmates didn’t understand him, nor his ground-breaking discovery. 

Ian King’s lighting and Kyle Serino’s sound effect keep the audience’s attention focused on key characters during stirring, dramatic and touching scenes, that swiftly change from Idaho, Minsk, Belarus, New York City, San Francisco, and other sites.  

Sorkin explores Farnsworth’s humble beginnings, his boundless, youthful enthusiasm for his invention; his offhanded proposal to girlfriend Elma “Pem,”  and dogged, successful pursuit of creating electronic, not mechanical, television, ultimately resulting in waging a patent war with Zworkyin and Sarnoff.

Sorkin also paints a moving portrait of Sarnoff, who as a youngster dared to stand up to a Cossack in Minsk, immigrated with his family to New York, battled and elbowed his way up the corporate ladder, and used unsavory tactics, such as business “espionage,” to become a pioneer in both radio, television, and the entertainment industry, building Radio City Music Hall, etc.

Unfortunately, Sorkin’s focus on the two men’s competition eliminates or glosses over exciting biographical facts. Farnsworth continued to create countless inventions; fathered four children, not just Kenneth, who in the play, dies at age 2 of a streptococcal infection; and battled depression and alcoholism. He also was inducted into the San Francisco Hall of Fame, the Television Academy Hall of Fame, and a statue was erected in his honor at San Francisco’s Letterman Digital Arts Center.

From his humble beginnings, Sarnoff made great strides, climbing the corporate ladder. He became president of Radio Corp. of America (RCA )in 1930 and later chairman of the board, retiring in 1970. Ironically, Farnsworth and Sarnoff died within three months of each other, in 1971.

Matt Arnold, Katharine Daly, Robin Gabrielli, Andy Hicks, Justus Perry, Korinne T. Hitchey, Noah Simes, Sophie Sinclair  and Dale J. Young round out this fine cast.

Sorkin’s seamlessly weaving fact and fiction make it difficult to determine what actually had occurred, so I raced home to research these two outstanding Americans.

And, guess what? Feeling inspired to learn more after seeing this “The Farnsworth Invention” isn’t a bad thing.

"The Farnsworth Invention" (12 -27 June)
@ Arsenal Center for The Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, WATERTOWN MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide