BWW Review: The Origin Of Television Takes Center Stage in THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION at 1st Stage
A science nerd from America's heartland and an Americanized immigrant entrepreneur who never met battle it out over bragging rights to one of the 20th century's most monumental innovations.
The invention in question is television and the two figures are not exactly house names: Philo Farnsworth and David Sarnoff. Sarnoff might ring a bell, especially if you are a baby boomer who came of age in the Golden Age of Television or have dim memories of the family gathering around the radio. Sarnoff was the president of RCA and the founder of NBC. His influence over the world of radio and television is a legacy for the ages.
But what of Mr. Farnsworth, with a name that sounds like a he would be a noisy neighbor from a 1950s sit-com? A wunderkind in his day, nearly self taught, Farnsworth's dreams of scientific questions and improbable answers lead him to the ideas of transmitting Moving Pictures through the air and collecting them in a device that would display them in virtually any location. In the early days of the 20th century, a time of accelerated innovation, such thoughts were far-fetched science fiction to the average person. But not so to Sarnoff, with his large corporation and dedicated departments, working nearly round the clock to move technology from plain old (and profitable) radio waves to the outlandish idea of television. Across the country, with a small group of helpers and faithful investors, Farnsworth was working on the same idea. Philo may have even come up with the idea first, circa 1923.
It is these two men racing to perfect and patent television that offers Aaron Sorkin
the focus of his historical fiction-based play THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION, which premiered in New York more than a decade ago. The two hour play is now being presented in a solid production at 1st Stage in Tysons, the third show of their 10th Anniversary Season.
As directed by Alex Levy, THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION is theatrically inventive and mostly compelling recounting of of Farnsworth and Sarnoff's parallel stories. The production is also performed by a skillful company of actors who take the audience on this little known historical journey.
Levy, working with scenic designer Kathryn Kawecki and lighting designer Robbie Hayes, provides a simple, scaffold and stair setting that easily transforms into farmland, RCA, a testing lab, or a bar and grill - all with a few boxes or window panes manipulated by The Acting Company. The fourth wall breaking style of the show reminded me of STORY THEATRE, where the narrators comment and then step into the action, and the ensemble changing characters with a slight adjustment of wardrobe or an accessory. This approach keeps the play moving, with only a few lapses in energy (noticeable during Act 2 on the matinee I attended).
The acting is uniformly strong, a hallmark of 1st Stage productions. Jonathan Lee Taylor serves as the initial narrator in his role as David Sarnoff, the tenacious RCA and NBC executive. With a no nonsense approach, Taylor effortlessly takes on the determined mogul's persona, reminding me of an edgy Henry Fonda. As the young science wiz Farnsworth, Sam Ludwig handles his role with equal skill, showing the awkward personality, sharp mind and his growing alcoholism with aplomb. As written by Sorkin, Sarnoff oversees the Farnsworth portions of the narrative, while Farnsworth narrators and counters with the scenes about Sarnoff's point of view. They serve as unreliable narrators - an old literary and theatrical convention - which adds a layer of tension and helps build the conflict - important for two men who never actually met.
Whereas the timeline of events is pretty much on point, the scenes and story told is mostly artistic license. This works better as a play, since it was not meant to be a documentary. Sorkin's writing is at his usual calibre; I just felt the energy level of the production sagged a bit for a play that was long on talk. This is likely a challenge that will smooth itself out the longer the cast is engaged for the coming weeks.
1st Stage did not waste casting on the two leads, since the rest of the company is filled with some of the DMV's best players: Frank Britton, Edward Christian, Katarina Clark, Michael Crowley, Gary DuBreuil, Amanda Fordstrom, Jeremy Keith Hunter, Liz Mamana, Tendo Nsubuga, Matthew Sparacino, Caroline Wolfson, and Jacob Yeh. The ensemble plays an estimated 70-plus roles and each one has their moment to connect to the central figures.
I think the 1st Stage production of THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION earned a solid B+, so it still makes the honor roll. You can catch it through March 11, 2018.
~ Follow Jeff Walker on Twitter - @jeffwalker66
THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION
by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Alex Levy
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission
1st Stage - 1524 Spring Hill Road | Tysons, VA 22102
February 15 through March 11 with show times as follows: Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2pm. - Box Office: 703-854-1856 or click here: 1ST Stage Website
Photo Credit: Teresa Castracane