Chronicling the birth of television and the ensuing patent war through the clash between an enterprising scientific genius from Utah and a Russian immigrant turned hard-nosed corporate honcho, “The Farnsworth Invention” tells a fascinating story. But despite Des McAnuff’s stylish production, tells is the key word here, not dramatizes. Aaron Sorkin’s first new play since “A Few Good Men” in 1989 was originally conceived as a screenplay. The plot-heavy drama is light on fully fleshed-out characters or subtext, making it likely to play more satisfyingly when it inevitably reverts to being a film or cable project.
Not that some audiences won’t respond to Sorkin’s ingratiating approach, his manicured dialogue and the jingoistic fervor of his paean to good old American innovation — to the pioneering spirit of pushing boundaries and boldly exploring new frontiers. They just won’t necessarily be the sophisticated audiences seeing Broadway plays on the same block, like “Rock ‘n’ Roll” or “August: Osage County.”
It’s interesting that McAnuff, set designer Klara Zieglerova and lighting chief Howell Binkley last teamed on “Jersey Boys.” There are distinct similarities here in the foot-on-the-accelerator direction as well as in the physical production and extensive use of direct-address narration to trudge through acres of exposition. The chief difference, though, is that “Jersey Boys” has emotional texture and clearly defined conflicts while “Farnsworth” never fully moves beyond its stream of overexplained factoids.
What’s worse is that it’s morally questionable. Sorkin constructs the story as a David vs. Goliath tale in which RCA chief and NBC founder David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) uses spy tactics to take advantage of developments by Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) and his team, allowing stymied, RCA-funded engineer Vladimir Zworykin (Bruce McKenzie) to make the crucial breakthrough and RCA, after a legal battle, to claim the patent.
Sorkin wants to have it both ways. He depicts Sarnoff as single-minded in his focus on personal glory and corporate profit to the exclusion of all other concerns. But then after crushing Farnsworth and consigning the true inventor of television to obscurity (in lengthy legal proceedings reduced to a single perfunctory scene), Sarnoff gets to imagine the rapprochement between the two men and acknowledge the underdog’s achievement. He also gets to show tearful remorse and big-picture perspective in a manipulative closing speech.
Post-Enron, do we really need Aaron Sorkin putting a human face on corporate greed and bullying?
It might have provided a subtler, more bittersweet coda had the writer mentioned that, following an appeal, the U.S. patent office upheld its decision to award Farnsworth priority in the development of electronic imaging, forcing RCA to pay him royalties.
Despite some selective editing of history, Sorkin’s aim clearly is to avoid simplistic black-and-white portrayals, instead giving both men a certain nobility as key figures in the invention of a world-changing medium. And it’s probably not surprising the writer might want to avoid painting NBC — his home on both “The West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” — in too villainous a light.
But all this diplomacy tends to muddy the central conflict, which is not helped by the fact Farnsworth doesn’t even know the two men are adversaries until three-quarters of the way through the play.
To his credit, Azaria — outfitted in classic mogul mode with pinstriped power suits and flawless Brylcreemed hair — brings charm, charisma and nuance to a self-contradictory role that’s heavily oratorical. Sorkin does go to pains to acknowledge the man’s entrepreneurial brilliance in transitioning radio from a communications service medium to one of information and entertainment, being on the vanguard with advertising and consumer culture, and a visionary regarding the impact of television.
It too often seems easy, however, for the writer to milk humor by imposing improbable foresight or obliviousness on the characters about the weight of things to come.
The standout performance of the solid ensemble comes from Simpson, who creates the most fully rounded figure onstage. His struggle with depression, alcoholism and frustration over his failure to steer his discovery through the crucial final step make Farnsworth a sad, soulful figure, played by the Broadway newcomer with intelligence and increasingly troubled sensitivity.
Alexandra Wilson economically suggests the depths of Philo’s supportive wife, Pem, and their scenes together — particularly following a personal tragedy that prefigures the inventor’s devastating professional failure — give an indication of how this material might resonate emotionally with more detailed character exploration.
McAnuff makes resourceful use of the twin levels of Zieglerova’s set, with an elevated catwalk over the main playing area, showing a strong eye for compositional formations and swift efficiency in marshaling the large cast. Binkley’s precision lighting also contributes to lend the talky play visual life, appropriately heating up the underside of the upper deck like a copper-wired grid panel. David C. Woolard supplies the handsome 1920s and ’30s costumes.
However, effective as it is at times, the production’s reliance on Andrew Lippa’s cinematic underscoring (reminiscent of Philip Glass’ work) to shape the mood only points up the inability of the writing to perform that task alone.
The subject matter here is engrossing enough to yield a multi-episode docudrama, and its content ensures that “The Farnsworth Invention” is never uninteresting. But when the playwright enlists his two protagonists to talk the audience through both the human drama and the scientific back story — pointedly indicating what’s important and what will be later on — the dramaturgical laziness undermines even the most robust narrative.