Mike Fischer, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Photo of Nicholas Harazin and Michael Huftile by Nick Berard
Madison - Three years before winning an Oscar for "The Social Network," Aaron Sorkin gave us "The Farnsworth Invention," a theatrical variation on the same theme.
Focused on the beginning of television rather than the rise of Facebook, it's currently on stage courtesy of Madison's Forward Theater Company, in a bracing, must-see production that deserves an award of its own.
Sorkin's title refers to Philo T. Farnsworth (Nicholas Harazin), whose improbable rise from Idaho potato farmer to inventor of electronic television showcases the quintessentially American belief that anything is possible for those who work hard and dream harder.
In the other corner, living an equally American story, David Sarnoff (Michael Huftile) escapes persecution in Russia and anti-Semitism in America to become the legendary titan who rules RCA - and then tries to steal what Farnsworth made. Obverse sides of the same coin, both men are consumed by their vision and blind to the consequences. Emphasizing how much they share for all that they're different, the leads who play them narrate each other's stories, while also acting out their own.
They get plenty of help from fourteen additional actors, including eight graduate-level theater students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who collectively play more than 70 roles, in more than 50 scenes sprawled across more than 30 locations - all in two hours.
Aided by Charles J. Trieloff II's evocative, multilevel set and director Jennifer Uphoff Gray's adeptly blocked use of the entire playing space, the Forward cast establishes a brisk pace, making quick transitions and doing justice to Sorkin's crisp writing, while never losing sight of the through line. That's easier said than done, given sidebars on topics such as the technology of television and the 1929 stock market crash.
It helps that the dialogue in "Farnsworth" is often funny, and helps even more that Gray periodically slows things down to play up dramatic and moving scenes fleshing out the two leads. Both Harazin and Huftile do their part.
Wearing his heart and enthusiasm on his sleeve, Harazin's likable Farnsworth is a bundle of spastic, diffuse energy who looks like he just rolled out of bed. Bigger and darker than Harazin, Huftile's impeccably groomed Sarnoff looks like he never goes to bed. As intense as Farnsworth, this Sarnoff is far more focused and contained - determined to bend history to his will in a play which never lets us forget that while television may shape how we see the world, we make the choices that shape how we see television.