Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 3, 2007
The Farnsworth Invention A new play by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Des McAnuff. Original music by Andrew Lippa. Scenic design by Klara Zieglerova. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Walter Trarbach. Hair and wig design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer. Movement by Lisa Shriver. Fight direction by Steve Rankin. Cast: Hank Azaria, Jimmi Simpson, with Nadia Bowers, Kyle Fabel, Maurice Godin, Christian M. Johansen, Aaron Krohn, Bruce McKenzie, Malcolm Morano, Spencer Moses, Michael Mulheren, Jim Ortlieb, Michael Pemberton, Katharine Powell, Steve Rosen, James Sutorius, Margot White, Alexandra Wilson, William Youmans.
The answer is yes - and no. With his new play The Farnsworth Invention, which just opened at the Music Box, Aaron Sorkin lays unquestionable claim to the former. His exploration of the genesis of one of mankind's greatest technological achievements, as directed by Des McAnuff, is such a gripping entry in the Broadway season that you'll regret even more the stagehands' strike that kept it shuttered for nearly three weeks.
If this spoils the play's use as a documentary (which would be dangerous even if all its claims were verifiable), it also has the unusual effect of strengthening its compelling core conceit. For though The Farnsworth Invention almost entirely concerns Farnsworth's conception of the new medium, the rise of RCA and eventually NBC in the entertainment world under Sarnoff's leadership, and what happens when the two men cross paths and purposes, it's ultimately about everything we don't know, why we don't know it, and the unreliability of history (particularly the oral kind).
This is both the play's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The do-or-die nature of the Farnsworth-Sarnoff contretemps gives Sorkin plenty of opportunity to sharpen and deploy the razor-edged confrontations and Gatling-gun quips that have long categorized his best work on the stage and screen. Fans of his TV series, Sports Night, The West Wing, and last season's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, won't be disappointed by his pungent evisceration of the instant boredom traditionally associated with most issues related to intellectual property.
But for all Sorkin's facility writing speeches and scenes about matters technical (light tubes, Pyrex sealing caps, the relationship between agriculture and image dissection), legal, and theoretical, he's all but stymied when it comes to approaching the human side of the equation. Farnsworth and Sarnoff are the closest he comes to creating fully rounded characters, and they're defined more by their relationship to each other than anything else. (Their corresponding wives, respectively played by Alexandra Wilson and Nadia Bowers, are little more than set pieces, anonymous to the point of interchangeability.)
Absorbing as the elusiveness of truth is while you're sitting in the theater, it doesn't grow and evolve upon reflection the way deeply felt, emotional exchanges do; great playwrights can achieve both at the same time (see the second act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to understand Tennessee Williams's mastery of this art). In forcing you to appreciate this play - as with much of his work - strictly on an intellectual level, Sorkin robs you of the opportunity for feeling in your bones the importance of Farnsworth and Sarnoff's struggle.
As a result, The Farnsworth Invention invariably seems more suited to TV than to the stage; not coincidentally, it was reportedly adapted from an aborted TV property from several years back. This explains McAnuff's slickly cinematic production, which generally resembles a low-key recreation of his electric staging for the musical Jersey Boys (Klara Zieglerova's bi-level industrial set also strongly recalls her scenic design for that show), and the use of a cast of a large ensemble - including Michael Mulheren and James Sutorius as two prominent executive types - playing far too many roles with far too little distinction.
Simpson and Azaria make smart emcees for the turbulent saga, though Azaria lands Sorkin's cesium-coated zingers with an accuracy that eludes him during the darker scenes, and Simpson's affability and boyish looks bring more gravity to his drama than his comedy. Each, however, has the uncanny ability to make you accept his words - even when you might feel it's not in your best interests to do so.
In that way, they're both stand-ins for Sorkin, who might succumb to occasional bouts of unhealthy exaggeration but registers complete authority with every word that passes across the footlights. That, combined with his highly polished storytelling sense, ensures that the proceedings are never dull and never identifiably fake. But with no underlying heart, The Farnsworth Invention ultimately feels nearly as two-dimensional as the images you see on the small screen.