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*He is not a secret agent. Not at all.



I had only one problem with The Farnsworth Invention (directed by Des McAnuff). It came in the first 90 seconds or so and it is entirely a result of my geekery. The play begins with David Sarnoff (Stephen Lang), the president of RCA in the thirties, antagonist of the piece and co-narrator. He wants to make a point about light and in doing so mentions electrons. "The only people thinking about electrons in the 1920's were comic book writers....and comic book readers," he says. Fourteen-year-old Philo Taylor Farnsworth was also, but it's those first two groups I got hung up on for a few seconds.

I've generally gone with the common understanding of Famous Funnies being the first comic book. It's arguable, but that's the line I've drawn. I might have written the line with "pulp magazines" in reference to something like Amazing Stories, and most of those magazines didn't really get underway until the later half of the decade. It wouldn't sound as good though.

Accuracy, however, can be the hobgoblin of drama. That quibbling point was quickly forgotten, though, because The Farnsworth Invention was fanfuckingtastic.

As I mentioned, Sarnoff is the co-narrator along with Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) each taking over as the other is actually engaged in the story of the race to invent the television, occasionally stepping out of their own stories as well. The play moves along at very much the clip you expect from something Aaron Sorkin wrote and this is achieved though rapid scene changes made by the actors themselves as Sarnoff or Farnsworth bridge the scenes. The sets in this workshop production are mostly non-existent, consisting largely of tables on casters and chairs (with some exceptions), additionally most of the the 20 actors in the ensemble carry multiple rolls (Jim Ortlieb being a highlight in that respect) which helps keep the pace up. The way the story jumps from Idaho to Russia to Utah to New York to San Francisco (mostly New York and San Francisco) to Delaware, it's easy to see both how this may have once been a film script and how it may one day be again.

Farnsworth and Zworykin
Lang's Sarnoff was scarcely a villain. Machiavellian? Absolutely. A little on the wrongish side of things? Depends on how much of a capitalist you're comfortable being, I suppose. You don't hate him. He's got a sense of humor that sees to that and right in those first couple of minutes, if you're familiar with the Sorkin style, you get a sense of it from him. However, it's when Simpson turns up as Farnsworth to take over the narrative for the first time that the Sorkin voice really shows up all full-throated. Simpson reminds me of a young John deLancie a bit. He also reminds me a lot of Christian Slater but without any of the baby-Jack. No, wait. He's got a lot of James Spader going on (though Spader's never been in a Sorkin anything, unlike those others). His Farnsworth is Sorkin's mouthpiece more than any other character, like Josh and Toby, like Matt Albie and like whoever Josh Molina's playing. He's got all those signature rhythms and within a minute, I couldn't imagine anyone else in the role.

The play traces Sarnoff from the young boy who was essentially forced out of Russia to encounter anti-Semitism in the States (not a major part of things, but it plays its part) to rising through the ranks to control the Radio Corporation of America to trying to get to having the television first in an effort to make it something that will change the world for the better. He holds an idealism about television (not a surprising theme in Sorkin's work by a long shot). His idealism about the potential of television works so much more than anything in Studio 60 because it comes from a place where television hasn't happened yet. This is a guy that is disgusted by the idea of advertising on the radio. It elecits chuckles when he has a quick tirade to his wife about television eliminating illiteracy and ending war.

At the same time, we follow Farnsworth from ninth grader too smart for most rooms through to possessed inventor, to husband and father to seeing his dream ever so cleverly get yoinked away from him after a not-so-coincidental meeting with Sarnoff's inventor Vladmir Zworykin (Bruce McKenzie) who had been working on a mechanical television, rather than Farnsworth's electronic approach.

Certainly, as I alluded earlier, accuracy is sometimes sacrificed for drama and in narration Sarnoff even admits as much. And while mention is made of Farnsworth's efforts in fusion, the play is about the television and keeps it's focus very much there.

Now, if you've been a Sorkin fan, you may remember a certain episode of Sports Night. In "Cliff Gardner," ratings consultant Sam Donovan (William H. Macy) makes a point to some network executives about how to get the best out of creative people. He does so by comparing himself to Cliff Gardner, who was Farnsworth's brother-in-law. Gardner wanted to help Farnsworth in some way. He wasn't a scientist or anything and had no special skills, but he saw that glass tubes would be needed so he learned to be a glassblower. Sam even voiced Gardner in telling the story and that bit is right there in in the play, exactly as Sorkin described it through Sam Donovan eight years ago.

Despite the inevitable downbeat of Farnsworth's loss in his battle for his invention, Sorkin pulls off a mighty upbeat to close things on, as Sarnoff, ambivalent about his regrets, imagines where Farnsworth might have been and what he might have been doing on July 16th, 1969 at around 9:30 in the morning.

In reality, Farnsworth's wife, Pem, had said that her husband thought that everything he'd been through had been worth it upon seeing live pictures of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.

TV and the Apollo program. Got me hard right there.

Some complaints about Studio 60, among those who know about it, is that Sorkin really seems to be working through some stuff through writing through that show. Large chunks of it are either well-known as being things from his life while other things are speculated as also being things from his life (and perhaps in direct reference to The Farnsworth Invention not being a flick, though I'm not sure that that speculation makes a lot of sense). Not all of it is coming through that well. Obviously, being historical in nature, Sorkin's opportunity for writing-threapy is limited, though there is one throw-away line about the country not learning the lessons of prohibition in regard to "other vices" that struck me as just a little meta.

For all the ups and downs of Studio 60 this season, The Farnsworth Invention is an assurance that Sorkin has still got mad skillz. I saw the matinee show on the last day of the run and I was seriously considering putting off the hour-plus drive back home to get in the rush line and try for another ticket to the final show which would not begin for about four hours.

I'd tell you that wherever you are, get to San Diego and see it, but the run's over. Keep your eyes open. Maybe it'll go to Broadway or the local cinema, and if you're really lucky, maybe Simpson will reprise Farnsworth.
©2024 Michael Patrick Sullivan
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