By Andrew Winistorfer, A.V. Club
Photo of Nicholas Harazin by Zane Williams
“Philo T. Farnsworth is a visionary. A farm boy from Idaho, he can look at the lines of a plowed field and imagine a device that can transmit pictures through the air. David Sarnoff is also a visionary. A Russian immigrant who rose from a telegraph operator to the head of RCA, Sarnoff can see the future of information and entertainment.”
The Farnsworth Invention is about the competition between David Sarnoff and Philo Farnsworth, who were responsible for realizing the business of TV, and the technical possibilities of TV, respectively. There was an entanglement that lasted until both men’s deaths, as Sarnoff refused to acknowledge Farnsworth’s contribution to television—some would say he stole it—and Farnsworth was denied the name recognition and fame he deserved. “I think the American drive for invention and innovation, and what comes next, is one of the biggest themes in the play,” says Forward Theater Artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, who is also directing the play. “But the nature of genius is a theme, too. Because I think both Farnsworth and Sarnoff were geniuses in very different ways. There’s one with the innate, brilliant mind; the other with an incredible dedication to hard work that leads him to a position of great influence. It’s about who owns the idea of television, and if anyone can actually own it.”
The great Aaron Sorkin wrote The Farnsworth Invention and intended to turn it into a movie. However, he realized that with the wealth of characters (something like 80 different roles, played here by 16 actors), and the thrust of the story, it worked better as a play. “[Sorkin] has taken something that contains a lot of detail and historical information, and makes it play like a mystery or a thriller. Everything unfolds in a highly dramatic and entertaining way,” Uphoff Gray says. “It’s a very wordy play, but it’s also the fastest play you’ll ever see. You know those West Wing walk-and-talks? It’s kind of a play full of those. There is a lot of information, but it doesn’t feel like that much of an intellectual exercise. It’s played with a lot of passion and speed and enthusiasm and humor.”
Because, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip aside, Sorkin has had one hell of a career of turning dry-seeming material into riveting entertainment (The Social Network, West Wing, Moneyball). A play about the battle of the technology of the television seems like it’s in his wheelhouse. Add to that the opportunity to see 16 people—including a bunch of UW theater students—play 80 characters while running down theatrical hallways saying stuff about television tubes, and The Farnsworth Invention is can’t-miss.