'The Farnsworth Invention': The Birth Of Television, Live Onstage [REVIEW]
Lindsay Christians, 77 Square

Photo by Nick Berard

Philo T. Farnsworth (Nicholas Harazin) and David Sarnoff (Michael Huftile) argue about whose version of events is correct, in the invention of television. It's hard to know who (or what) to believe in "The Farnsworth Invention," Aaron Sorkin's witty docudrama about the origins of television.

Sorkin offers two marginally reliable narrators: David Sarnoff, the pragmatic head of RCA and founder of NBC, and Philo T. Farnsworth, a brilliant self-taught inventor. As they recreate the assembling of Farnsworth's lab and the rise of Sarnoff in the ranks of radio, the two challenge each other, forget details, embellish and imagine things. Such conflict could lead to confusion.

But in Forward Theater's production, running in the Overture Center Playhouse through Nov. 20, the story is fast-paced and fascinating. Somehow, despite copious talk of cathode tubes and mosaic light patterns, "Farnsworth" retains the thrill of invention. In a typical scene, Sorkin spends several minutes describing the stock market crash of 1929, then sums it up in a phrase: "They're going to take your house." Michael Huftile plays Sarnoff with an unlikely combination of bombast and idealism. In an executive's suit, Huftile seems to swell with confidence, inflated by his own authority. (When irritated, he calls Farnsworth a "ridiculous hayseed savant.")

Next to Sarnoff, Nicholas Harazin as Farnsworth is all nervous energy. Harazin speaks earnestly, as though hopped up on caffeine, the cowlick on the back of his head giving him a boyish look. An ensemble of 14 actors, most of them graduate acting students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, play dozens of characters.
As two of Philo's early financial backers, Richard Ganoung and Bill Bolz channel classic comedy duos — the good buddy and the curmudgeon. Liz Cassarino sparkles as Pem, Philo's spirited wife; teenage Alistair Sewell is understated (and excellent) as young Philo and Sarnoff.

The actors, with coaching from Maureen Janson, do a fine job of keeping straight who is who. But sometimes "Farnsworth" spins forward so quickly, the scientific talk blurs like so many bouncing electrons. Sorkin makes cryptic references to things that "will be important later," which feels indulgent. Narrators interrupt to point out important moments, like someone talking over a TV show you're in the middle of watching.

Still, Jennifer Uphoff Gray's direction has masterful touches. As the characters age, one steps into the place of the other in a seamless transition. Actors switch places and costumes and voices in nearly every scene, but the effect is smooth, like a quiet lake concealing furious activity beneath.

"The Farnsworth Invention" is an ambitious production on several levels. Sorkin's play could easily descend into a glorified lecture, and the number of players is Shakespearean. That Forward can pull it off may seem as improbable as television once was. But "Farnsworth" is an indisputable success, a clear statement from Madison's growing professional company that Forward is ready to take some risks — and do some inventing — of its own.

Posted 11-6-11