Abbey drops ball on Sorkin commission

DUBLIN — The world premiere of the first new play in nearly two decades from a famous U.S. television scribe sounds like a dream scenario for any theater.

Yet the Abbey Theater has pulled out of its plans to stage Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention,” which it commissioned three years ago, citing a need to focus on internal changes, and on relations with the Irish legit community.

A workshop production of “Farnsworth” will go forward as planned at the La Jolla Playhouse in that California city Feb. 13-March 18, 2007,directed by La Jolla a.d., Des McAnuff; a La Jolla spokeswoman says the future is wide open for a McAnuff-directed full production at La Jolla, or elsewhere.

Both McAnuff and Sorkin indicate no ill will toward the Abbey, which is in the early stages of stabilization following several years of financial and managerial turmoil. “I completely understand their decision,” says Sorkin, calling the Abbey “one of the world’s great stages.”

The improbable story behind “The Farnsworth Invention” began in 2003, when the Abbey’s then-commissioning manager, Jocelyn Clarke, had the idea to ask Sorkin for what would be his first script in 17 years, since breaking onto the scene with “A Few Good Men.”

“Watching ‘The West Wing,’ I thought Sorkin was an incredibly theatrical writer, in that you could watch an exchange and have no idea what they were talking about politically, but could completely understand the character dynamics,” Clarke says. “That is extraordinary theater writing, both dramatic and metaphorical.”

Clarke cold-called the “West Wing” offices and, after two months of leaving messages, was surprised to be connected to Sorkin himself, who told him, “Mr. Clarke, I will write you a play.”

Sorkin’s theatrical agent, Jack Tantleff, says he was taken by surprise, but delighted when Sorkin accepted the Abbey commission; the writer has not had a play produced since 1989, when the Broadway success of “A Few Good Men” started the trajectory that led Sorkin first to make his name in film (“Malice,” “The American President”) and then television .

Ironically, the script Sorkin produced for the Abbey chronicles the origins of the very medium that has kept him away from the stage: It is a historical drama about the early 1930s battle between amateur scientist Philo T. Farnsworth and RCA tycoon David Sarnoff over the patent for the technology that allowed the first television transmissions.

McAnuff describes the play as “an all-encompassing exploration of the invention of television and what it means,” which “allows Aaron to flex muscles I haven’t seen before.”

Sorkin delivered a first draft in early 2005; the play offers two meaty parts for the actors playing Farnsworth and Sarnoff, with a cast of 12-15 thesps taking on 40-some additional characters. McAnuff, whose recent Broadway successes include “700 Sundays” and “Jersey Boys” (both of which originated at La Jolla) joined the project as director last February, with the general understanding that the play would preem at the Abbey in mid-2007.

At the same time, the Abbey was in a deepening crisis, which climaxed with artistic director Ben Barnes (on whose watch “Farnsworth” was commissioned) departing the theater abruptly in May, and then-director-designate Fiach MacConghail taking over seven months earlier than expected.

MacConghail continued negotiations on “Farnsworth” and agreed with McAnuff and Sorkin that the material would first appear in the early 2007 La Jolla “Page to Stage” workshop production, during which the creative team will work on and change material and to which critics are not invited. Workshop was to be a La Jolla/Abbey collaboration.

Last week, however, the Abbey pulled out of all involvement in the play, with MacConghail indicating through a spokeswoman that the theater does not feel in a position to deliver such a big project yet. Having just scored a series of windfalls –the latest being a grant of some E25.7 million ($30 million) in government funding for the 2006-08 period, a 43% increase over its 2005 grant levels — the Abbey says its concerns about “Farnsworth” are not financial, but rather appear to be questions of infrastructure and institutional focus.

The theater also rejected the suggestion that their backing out of the project might have to do with a perceived lack of cultural context for an America-set play by an American writer, pointing to their upcoming production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” in March as an indication of its openness to Stateside talent.

Clarke, who left the Abbey last December and now works as a freelance dramaturg, says it’s a great pity that the project will not be staged at its originating theater, but that he is happy it is getting an outing elsewhere. He says he still hopes to be involved in the continuing life of the project.

Sorkin, for his part, seems undaunted by this unexpected turn in the road: “While ‘The Farnsworth Invention’ will now premiere in the U.S., I hope I’ll be invited to open a new play in Dublin in the future,” he says.

The precedent is there. Irish literary managers — start dialing.

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