Invention, Passion, And Patents: Forward’s 'The Farnsworth Invention' [REVIEW]
Christian Neuhaus, Dane101

Photo by Nick Berard

Like the play that closed Forward Theater Company’s 2010 - 2011 season, the opening play of Forward’s third season is about the creation of something extraordinary. Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention, however, is bigger in form and content than Moonlight and Magnolias, with a cast of 16 and a story that follows the ascendance of commercial radio, the creation of television technology, and the subsequent battle over control of that technology. It’s a theatrically ambitious work and the fact that a local company excelled at staging it was satisfying in its own right.

The play opens with David Sarnoff, president of Radio Corporation of America (the company that created NBC), addressing the audience in a speech that includes the observation that "The end justifies the means. That's what means are for." Sarnoff narrates events in the early life of Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor who patented the technology for television and so made an enemy of Sarnoff. But then Farnsworth appears and narrates Sarnoff’s early life. The device of hostile co-narrators is thus introduced, and it’s an intriguing way to convey information as well as characterization.

Having Sarnoff and Farnsworth both onstage before their “real life” meeting (“real life” in quotes because that meeting didn’t actually happen — something Sarnoff explicitly acknowledges) is also an effective way of developing interest in their confrontation. Sarnoff is an especially interesting character: while Farnsworth is a technological inventor Sarnoff is a cultural inventor, able to immediately comprehend the cultural and societal implications for radio and television. And he has to be the one to control the influence of those technologies. I didn’t doubt Sarnoff’s sincerity when he talked about wanting to be a “custodian of mass communication” and his regret about Farnsworth’s eventual fate, yet Sarnoff combines a nobility of purpose with a ruthless imperative to have the sole power to make that purpose a reality.

The scenes that Farnsworth narrates set Sarnoff up nicely as a clever and resourceful adversary. Yet despite the ends/means line Sarnoff isn’t a stock “evil businessman” type. One of the things that make Michael Huftile as Sarnoff and Nicholas Harazin as Farnsworth so enjoyable to watch is that each actor brings a distinct type of charisma particularly suited to their respective roles. The costume design by Scott A. Rött also provided a nice contrast for the two, illustrating a spirit of amateur invention vs. a spirit of corporate control. The meeting between the two in the play’s penultimate scene may not have actually happened, but the drama of that sequence makes the embellishment easy to forgive.

The script is adapted from a screenplay and it has the short scenes and numerous small roles (more than 70) that are commonplace for a film or TV movie but not so much for the stage. Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray and the cast skillfully and seamlessly manage the transitions and there are some nice moments from what in movie terms would be the “supporting roles.” William Bolz and Richard Ganoung had some charming comic interplay as a pair of Farnsworth’s early supporters, and Paul Kennedy as Farnsworth’s primary sponsor won palpable intimidation not just from Farnsworth but from the audience with a single shouted line.

A play about history, technology, and patent law is going to need more than a usual amount of exposition, something that’s often noticeable in a script and usually not in a good way. If someone in my playwriting group wrote a series of scenes that recreated the stock market crash I probably would have called him on it, which is what Sarnoff does when Farnsworth narrates these scenes. The use of narrators who are interesting as characters, and who are describing not their stories but the stories of their antagonists, was an effective strategy. Something that I didn’t like as much were a couple of "check it out audience, this is important" lines of dialogue. (Thanks for the tip, Sorkin. I have seen a play before.)

With The Farnsworth Invention Forward once again demonstrates an aptitude for selecting smart, engaging scripts and assembling the talent to deliver a theatrical experience to match. It’s a production that’s informative, entertaining, and fascinating.

Posted 11-7-11