The Siegel Column

The Farnsworth Invention: Inventive, Indeed

Most of us, we dare say, know just about nothing regarding the invention of television. Like most everything magical and amazing about modern technology, we use it and take it for granted. But as The Farnsworth Invention suggests, television is certainly one of the twentieth century's most important breakthroughs. Aaron Sorkin's play about that invention, which opened this week on Broadway, is a purposefully constructed examination of the clash of science and commerce, with a considerable dash of show business thrown in to make it palatable, helped considerably by Des McAnuff's slick direction. But even there, the dichotomy of show and business is very much at the core of this play.

The play has two narrators, David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria), the visionary businessman who built first RCA and then NBC, and Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), the brilliant young man who invented television but lost out on the patent thanks to the maneuvering of Sarnoff. The play sets up the clash of ownership of television from the beginning, but there is no doubt about where Sorkin's sentiments lie: look at the play's title, for God sakes. Be that as it may, this production gives Sarnoff his due largely on the basis of Azaria's charismatic performance.

Fascinating in its detail, this is the kind of play that, like movie biopics from the 1930s, gives us our history in entertaining dollops. That said, and as engaging as it is, the play has one serious structural failure. It doesn't have a satisfying, commercially viable ending. You can see Sorkin's problem. How can you send people out of the theater depressed about the machinations of big business knowing that it will always crush the little guy? So what does he do? He plants a line in Farnsworth's dialogue halfway through the play in which, for no reason, he blurts out that man will walk on the moon sometime during this century and television will capture it. Then, at the end, as if that line justifies it, we leap forward to 1969 while Sarnoff gives us a riff on how man was meant to explore, attempting to divert us from the play's otherwise sad finale.

Sarnoff is a complicated and compelling character who, the play suggests, might have also been just the right guy to get television off the ground. After all, there have been a great many inventions that might have changed the world but never had the chance because they did not have a businessman champion who could bring them to fruition. In some sense, that is exactly what the play is about but it's a hard sell - and probably not commercial enough for television, itself. But just maybe commercial enough for Broadway ...

The Piano Teacher gives Elizabeth Franz the role of a lifetime

What a joy it is when a great actor gets a role worthy of his or her talents. It actually doesn't happen very often, but when it does it is something to behold. Consider the quietly brilliant performance given by Elizabeth Franz in the Vineyard Theatre Company's production of The Piano Teacher by Julia Cho.

A gifted actor can only spin so much gold out of straw. But give that same actor real gold to work with and you just might end up with a theatrical eureka! Happily, audiences hit a mother lode of talent when they see The Piano Teacher; it's an exceptionally smart, well-constructed work, directed with attention to character detail by Kate Whoriskey.

For a long time you will think you are watching a one-person play. Franz is alone on stage telling us her story of being a small town piano teacher. The story she tells has the depth of a full-blown autobiography; we learn about her early promise as a protégé, her initial local success, followed by the series of minor events that led finally to marriage and teaching piano. Innocuous, yet entertaining, we are sucked into her normal world, so much so that we feel her sense of loneliness now that her husband is gone and her students have scattered. We well understand her impulse to call her former students, hoping that they will remember her and that, perhaps, that little bit of music they learned from her might have brightened their lives in some fundamental way. But both and the audience are in for a surprise on that score ...

The playwright is way ahead of us, teasing the audience with expectations about where the story is going but then surprising us at pivotal moments. What begins as a personal, small town tale that seems, on the surface, like a minimalist Horton Foote play, suddenly reveals itself as a suspense story and then, even more impressively, it morphs into a genuinely profound contemplation of good and evil.

Franz's journey as an actress takes her from geniality and warmth when she first begins to talk to the audience, to a sort of delicately heartbreaking neediness when it's clear she is exceedingly lonely. From there, she becomes more defensive, guarded, and anxious. Her performance is subtle. Changes aren't so much incremental as they are cellular; she is so much that woman that it hurts. When, finally, she becomes ferocious and angry, lashing out in defense of the life she has known, we believe it comes from somewhere deep inside of her. At play's end, when she desperately clings to the idealized image of a civilized world, even after the safety net of her happy memories have been ripped away, the playwright, with the help of one of the great performances you will see this year in the theater, reveals the dark abyss of the human soul.

Bingo: it's Adam Rapp!

Adam Rapp's stock in trade has always been, in fact, the dark abyss of the human soul. He just has an exceedingly quirky way of making his points. Take Bingo With the Indians, his viciously dark comedy currently playing at The Flea, which just might be the bleakest vision of Off-Off Broadway theatre you will see this side of Hell.

The play begins in a motel room where a woman in a camouflage outfit is cleaning a gun, a tall and ominous figure is sitting on the toilet wearing a ski mask, and a young Asian man is lying on a bed reading a book. They look, for all intents and purposes, like a terrorist cell - or a small band of criminals about to pull a heist. It turns out to be the latter - sort of. They are, in fact, a theatrical troupe: the woman is the fiery artistic director of a very downtown theatre group. The tall guy with the ski mask is an actor with a drug problem - actually, quite a few problems - and the Asian guy is the company's lethally twisted stage manager. They have come to a small town in Vermont to steal the cash from a popular bingo game in order to get the money to put on a play.

This being an Adam Rapp play - which he also directed - things don't go anywhere near as planned. While sending up avant garde Off-Off Broadway pretensions, Rapp is also giving us a blistering - if wildly uneven - play about social and sexual dysfunction, much of it centered around the confused teenager who works at the motel and wants to become an actor. In what is a stunning performance of mixed emotions, young Steve (Evan Enderle) is nothing if not heartbreaking. Jessica Pohly has essentially one dimension to play as the artistic director but she plays it to the hilt. Cooper Daniels is dangerously funny as the out-of-control actor, and Rob Yang is dryly effective, as well, in what turns out be a far more substantial role than you expect it will be.

Those actors and the rest of the generally fine cast of Bingo ... are members of The Bats, the acting troupe that works at The Flea. With spot-on set design by John McDermott and wonderfully crappy costume design by Daphne Javitch, the play has all the seedy charm of a typical Adam Rapp production, including plenty of sexual abuse, violence and nutty surprises. It is, in fact, an avant garde Off-Off Broadway play that borders on the pretentious itself, except it's too self-aware to ever fully fall into the trap of its own making. A brutal ninety-five minutes without an intermission, it is a play Adam Rapp fans will enjoy immensely; the rest of the world: be very, very wary.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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