Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Farnsworth Invention
Fact or Fiction? Farnsworth Frustration
Palo Alto Players

Also see Patrick's review of Becky Shaw and Richard's reviews of Failure: A Love Story and Body of Water,
Marry Me a Little and Maestro

Michael Sally and Dominic Falletti
Aaron Sorkin has made history as a writer for TV and film, including A Few Good Men and The West Wing among many others. His foray into playwriting, The Farnsworth Invention, takes a pivotal development in 20th century science and brings it to life as a rivalry between two iconic figures: Philo T. Farnsworth, genius inventor of television, and David Sarnoff, genius businessman behind RCA and NBC. The play's merits as entertainment may be debatable, but the liberties it takes with history are problematic, and create even more debate about what's permissible to fictionalize in the name of "art." Palo Alto Players presents an earnest and well-acted version of Sorkin's play, paired with an interesting program insert from the playwright, and leaves the debating up to you.

The history is presented as flashback, narrated by Sarnoff (Michael Sally), taking us back to the apparent beginning of the saga, when a young Farnsworth (Dominic Falletti) plows a field and conceives the method for transmitting images electronically in rows of light. Conveying his inspiration to his astonished high school science teacher Justin Tolman (Tom Caldecott), Philo makes a crude drawing of his idea that nevertheless illustrates the entire process on which "television" will be based. Act one follows his progress in obtaining funds, developing his ideas, and building a prototype, with the counterpoint of Sarnoff's rise to mogul status first as head of RCA and then founder of NBC. Much of this is accurate, but also contains assertions that play fast and loose with fact.

The play is lively in these early years, from 1921 on, and the ensemble cast in Players' production does a great job with numerous character and costume changes. Director Dave Sikula's staging on Kuo-Hao Lo's multi-level set with a huge projection screen keeps it moving along with active spectacle. There's a lot of fact-telling, reminiscent of the History Channel, that can occasionally feel pedantic, but mostly the story unfolds with curiosity and intrigue.

Act two mixes up events sequentially, while continuing to promote the rivalry between Sarnoff, his chief scientist Vladimir Zworykin (Charles Evans), and the Farnsworth lab. Supposedly Farnsworth had a "light problem"; supposedly Zworykin visits Farnsworth and possibly steals something.

But the bewildering fiction is the play's version of the court decision regarding Farnsworth's patent suit, leaving one to wonder, "Why?" What does this revision of fact do, other than mis-educate theatre patrons? We can only think that we're seeing events through the Sarnoff lens, that he refuses to accept his own historical defeat. Even the portrayal of Farnsworth in the final moment of the show, although beautifully staged, is unfortunately also fictionalized. Sorkin's program note fails, in this reviewer's mind, to dispel the impression that he has taken liberties with actual history in service of his vision of theatricality.

Sally is suitably ruthless and shrewd as Sarnoff, carrying much of the show with his clear, compelling narration. Falletti excellently portrays Farnsworth from youth to old age, also narrating large sections with verve; the section describing the market crash of 1929 is especially well done. The two head a large, energetic ensemble, trading costumes almost every time they exit, and switching characters on a dime. Their enthusiasm and ingenuity helps keep the narrative afloat. Superb period costuming by Shannon Maxham plays a huge part in the show, as does atmospheric lighting by Selina Young, cool scientific props by Pat Tyler, and effective sound design by Jeff Grafton. Projections put together by George Mauro aid in following the story, and provide fascinating intermission fun.

The play overall is entertaining, although on the talkative side. Hopefully it will persuade audiences to examine the history of Farnsworth and Sarnoff, and engender an even deeper appreciation for the significance of this scientific breakthrough.

The Farnsworth Invention by Aaron Sorkin, presented by Palo Alto Players at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, through June 28, 2014. Tickets $23-45, available at 650-329-0891 or at

Photo: Goldschmid

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Jeanie K. Smith

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