Wednesday, November 7, 2007
The Farnsworth Invention
A couple of days after seeing "The Farnsworth Invention" at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, I took the NBC Studios tour, which begins with a short film about the network and its origins. There's a quote from David Sarnoff, the founder of the National Broadcasting Company, talking about television's potential. “It is an art which shines like a torch of hope in the troubled world."
In Aaron Sorkin's play, Sarnoff, portrayed by Hank Azaria, is less the visionary idealist waxing poetically about the new medium, and more the hardheaded, ruthless businessman trying to turn the new medium into a profit source. It's a stark contrast with Philo T. Farnsworth, played by Jimmi Simpson as a technological wizard who doesn't have a clue about the cuththroat realities of the business world.
While I enjoyed both performances, I knew Hank Azaria from movies and television. I was unfamiliar with Jimmi Simpson, and he's quite a revelation. I thought he was terrific - a mixture of boyish charm, scientific know-how and real-world naievete.
The race between the two men to invent television - and claim credit for the invention - is at the heart of the play. Each acts as narrator for the other's life story.
So we learn how the young Sarnoff and his family faced persecution in Russia, and became part of the wave of Jewish immigration to New York City in the early 20th century. Farnsworth, born in Utah, grew up in a farm family in Idaho. From an early age, they fell into the roles that they would assume as adults - Sarnoff as a businessman, Farnsworth as an inventor.
While David C. Woolard's costume design isn't very flashy or showy, it helps to accentuate the differences between the two men, as does Mark Adam Rampmeyer's hair and wig designs. Sarnoff is all slicked back hair and finely tailored suits. Meanwhile, Simpson's coiffure looks a little unruly and uncombed, and his clothes always appear slightly unkempt, like he got dressed in a hurry. He's a man for whom personal appearance is clearly an afterthought, while Sarnoff never forgets the importance of a good presentation.
Azaria and Simpson are fascinating to watch as Sarnoff and Farnsworth. Their dress, their manner of speaking, their body language, offer a study in contrasts. Sarnoff is brusque and blunt and and forceful and knows his way around the boardroom. Farnsworth has a certain gee-whiz boyish quality as he rushes around on stage. He may be a scientific genius but he doesn't know very much about how to impress potential investors.
Of course, I have no idea how close these two portraits hew to reality. I've never been a big fan of Aaron Sorkin's television work. I find it melodramatic and and corny and some of his characters stereotypical.
And with Sarnoff especially, he veers dangerously close to a stereotype. He seems to want to blame Sarnoff for selling out the hope that television could be a force for good in a changing world, that if only he'd shown more backbone, we'd have better-quality programming, less fluff. In Sorkin's view, Farnsworth is clearly an angel, a babe in the woods taken advantage of by ruthless corporate interests.
In addition, I felt a little cheated to learn that a key scene in the play is a total fabrication. It's impossible to know how much of the story really happened the way Sorkin presents it, and how much of it is embellished for dramatic purposes.
Also, since much of the story revolves around science and the intricacies of patent law, there's quite a bit of exposition, more telling the story than showing it. And I found some of the technical jargon a bit hard to follow.
Still, despite those quibbles, "The Farnsworth Invention" is a fascinating portrait of two men who ushered in a technology that changed the way we look at each other and at the world, bringing us to places that we'd never seen before, giving us experiences we've never had before.
It's interesting how these two men of very meager backgrounds symbolize two very different American experiences in the early part of the 20th century - East Coast and West Coast, urban and rural, immigrant and native born. Television, by creating a common American culture coast to coast, would play a great role in reducing those differences for future generations.