Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Farnsworth Invention, Beck Center

(Sebastian Hawkes Orr as Farnsworth and Paul Floriano as Sarnoff)

It’s a damn good thing somebody invented television, otherwise we’d be relegated to sitting in a chair and staring at a blank wall for four hours a night. But who among us ever wonders about the person who came up with this miracle of instant audio/video transmission?

That question is somewhat answered in The Farnsworth Invention, now at the Beck Center. Written by Aaron Sorkin (who created and wrote many of the scripts of the TV series The West Wing), the play narrows the culprits down to two: Utah rube-genius Philo Farnsworth and snarky, sharkskin-suited David Sarnoff, head honcho of RCA and NBC.

The basic outlines of these very different pioneers have great theatrical potential, but Sorkin feels compelled to unload so many factoids about their history that we never connect emotionally with either man or their intersecting obsessions. Without that, the evening feels like a heavily-footnoted essay on the emergence of television, rather than an energetic exploration of what was arguably the 20th century’s most impactful invention.

After briefly touching on the childhoods of each man (Farnsworth was a wildly precocious 12-year-old farm boy while Sarnoff was born to a poor Jewish family in Russia), the adult versions of each man proceed to share the narration of the play. This quasi-documentary structure allows Sorkin to indulge in many fact-spewing forays—"such-and-such" company was a subsidiary of "so-and-so corporation"—which justify the time he spent on research but feel more like a dry seminar than a theatrical performance.

Anyhow, Farnsworth manages to find funding for a television lab and, battling challenges that include a fondness for drink and a very ill son, he—SPOILER ALERT—invents a TV that actually works! Meanwhile, Sarnoff snarls at his highly paid scientists who can’t seem to make their magic boxes function. But Sarnoff has an overarching mission for the new medium that will make him a star of the new broadcast culture.

Unfortunately, Invention gets so tangled up in the patent battles, repeated descriptions of cathode ray tube technology and marital spats that the play is little more than a series of loose ends searching for a unifying thrust. And by keeping Farnsworth and Sarnoff essentially two-dimensional figures, the audience is blocked from becoming thoroughly involved. And then Sorkin doubles down by inventing a second-act meeting between the two men, a fictional confrontation that should sizzle but instead drops with a dull thud.

Still director Scott Spence keeps the action brisk and crisp on Trad A. Burns’ gorgeous platform, designed to resemble a test pattern (for those old enough to remember when that graphic came on the tube, along with its charming hum, at the end of a broadcast day. Yes, broadcast days actually did end, at one time in the far distant past.). The only downside to the surrounding production is an odd, pulsing electronic sound effect that comes and goes for no apparent reason during some scenes.

As for the actors, they have some tough slogging to fight their way through too many speeches that feature some witty, Sorkin-esque lines but get too tangled up in their underwear. Sebastian Hawkes Orr brings an affecting naturalness and eager, nerdy zeal to Farnsworth. But he doesn’t do as well with the more shadowy parts of Philo’s character, stumbling in all the wrong ways through a scene in which Farnsworth is supposed to be drunk on his girlfriend’s lawn.

Paul Floriano has a nice feel for the oily yet visionary Sarnoff, launching a barrage of F-bombs at his cowering staff and stewing in his juices as the hick Farnsworth keeps one-upping his own team. But on opening night Floriano fumbled a number of lines, and this undermined the smooth assurance and firm command that should undergird his character.

Most of the others in the large cast play multiple roles, with varying degrees of success since these secondary parts have even less definition than the leads. But Jeffrey Grover and Robert Hawkes have some comical moments as a Frick and Frack pair of functionaries who participate in Philo’s initial funding.

It’s too bad that playwright Sorkin didn’t follow the lead of Peter Shaffer, who wrote a play loosely based on the lives of two contemporaries who were involved in a complicated task, who competed with one another, and who overcame tragedies. But that play, Amadeus, absolutely bursts with complex characterization and passion. The very things that are missing in The Farnsworth Invention.

The Farnsworth Invention
Through April 11 at the Beck Center,
17801 Detroit Road, Rocky River,

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