Forward Theater Examines TV's Dueling Creators In 'The Farnsworth Invention'
Rosemary Zurlo-Cuva, The Isthmus

Photo of Nicholas Harazin by Zane Williams

There is a decidedly festive atmosphere at Forward Theater Company's newly acquired rehearsal space in downtown Madison. Cast, crew and a number of guests have gathered this October late afternoon for the first rehearsal of the first production of the new season. After all the reunion hugs, the swells of laughter and the friendly clamor for chairs, the room quiets. Anticipation is palpable as Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward's artistic director and director of this new play, rises to set the stage, so to speak, for the first read-through of Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention.

Set to open Nov. 3 in Overture Center's Playhouse, The Farnsworth Invention is an impressive challenge with which to open a new season. It tells the story of two primary players in the invention of television, visionary inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and the equally visionary David Sarnoff, head of RCA and eventually NBC. It might not sound like the stuff of great drama until you remember that this is a Sorkin play, and there will be language — fast, articulate speeches often delivered on the move. There will be quick changes and big ideas.

In fact, there are 16 actors playing some 80 roles. Farnsworth, the boy genius raised on an Idaho farm, is played by Nicholas Harazin, a Forward veteran who has spent the last two summers with American Players Theatre. Harazin prepared for the role by immersing himself in biographical research about Farnsworth and his times, and also by staring at the periodic table of elements.

"Especially the photoelectric elements," says Harazin. "Selenium, cesium. It helped me to surround myself with things Farnsworth would have had on his mind."
Like all the actors in the room this day, Harazin is excited to be working with Sorkin's words and the large ensemble cast. "Timing," he says, "takes on more significance."

Sarnoff, 15 years older than Farnsworth and infinitely more wise in the ways of the world, is played by APT company actor Michael Huftile, last seen as the duplicitous and easily led Sebastian in this summer's The Tempest.

The cast is filled out with three FTC advisory company members, three community members and, in collaboration with the UW drama department, eight third-year MFA acting students.

The read-through takes about two hours, with a break between acts for coffee and sandwiches. Even this first time through, the exhilarating rhythm of Sorkin's dialogue is evident, at least to those of us who've watched (and rewatched) every episode of West Wing, Sports Night and the one-season wonder — also a tribute, in its way, to the early days of television — Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Many of the actors appear to be working practically off-book. Huftile stands to read his part during the second act, as if Sarnoff's authority, the weight of what the executive must wade through and decide, has already infected his performance. He uses his flexible baritone to advantage, lowering the volume in those moments of strong feeling.

As one would expect, the dialogue is sharp and fast-paced, and there are plenty of laugh lines along the way. But after the last line is delivered, a few beats of emotional silence hang in the air before the guests begin slowly to clap. This is a play that people will to want to think and talk about after.

The buzz associated with an Aaron Sorkin play notwithstanding, Forward Theater Company has a lot to be psyched about right now. Last season, only its second since forming in 2009, was both a critical and financial success. Subscriptions have increased nearly 50% over last year's, a validation of Forward's mission to provide exceptional theater experiences for Madison audiences while giving an artistic home to local theater professionals.

Posted 11-03-11

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