Lindsay Christians, 77 Square
Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times
In Forward Theater Co.'s production of "The Farnsworth Invention," Michael Huftile plays David Sarnoff, an executive at RCA and NBC who attempts to wrest control of television from its inventor, Philo Farnsworth. In Aaron Sorkin’s 2007 drama “The Farnsworth Invention,” the question isn’t only who invented television, but who may have stolen it.
Forward Theater Company opens its third season on Thursday, Nov. 3, in the Overture Center Playhouse with the story of a farm boy and a powerful media magnate.
One, Philo Farnsworth, was a scientific genius who invented TV. The other, David Sarnoff, immediately saw its long-term potential to change the world.
“He didn’t steal television,” said Michael Huftile with a slight laugh, referring to his character, Sarnoff. “It’s the story through his eyes, telling his side of the story, explaining what happened.
“It’s not an apology. It’s not an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’”
In the play, Sarnoff and Farnsworth (Nicholas Harazin) share the narration, cutting each other off and challenging each other’s version of events. Farnsworth works feverishly on his invention in a San Francisco laboratory, while Sarnoff ascends the corporate ladder with RCA and NBC, funneling money to his own scientists.
Both owned patents on television, but for years, neither side could get it to work. “I don’t want (Sarnoff) to seem a villain,” said Huftile, whom audiences might recognize as the greedy throne-stealer Antonio in American Players Theatre’s “The Tempest.” “He has had to fight for everything in his life — he’s not as scientifically intelligent as Farnsworth is. Farnsworth has the brains … Sarnoff has the drive, the ambition, the business mentality.”
Though it’s presented with an aura of history, “Farnsworth” is no documentary. Sorkin created composite characters, conflated events and changed outcomes. “The playwright’s job is different than the historian,” said assistant director Frank Hontz. “The historian, one would hope, is out to collect the available evidence and put the pieces together in a way that makes factual sense, that connects the dots in logical ways. “The playwright gets to fill in those dots with whatever he or she wants.”
The danger with historical drama is that too much concern for accuracy can weigh down the story, obscure the dramatic arc and leave audience members feeling like they’re attending a lecture. Sorkin, whose screenplays include “The Social Network,” “A Few Good Men” and this year’s “Moneyball,” keeps the dialogue crisp and frequently jumps between places and times.