Obsession, we all know, can lead to madness, destruction, even death. But obsession, of a slightly healthier kind, can have its benefit — a lesson we’re reminded of in Aaron Sorkin’s extremely involving new Broadway drama, The Farnsworth Invention, which is being given a highly accomplished and ultra-slick production by Tony Award winner Des McAnuff.
The obsession in question is the invention of television, which would not exist today without two men: Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), a potato farmer’s son, who first began exploring the possibility of transmitting moving pictures in the ninth grade, and David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria), a Russian immigrant whose mixture of shrewdness, street-smarts, and even optimism led him to become the president of RCA, the founder of the National Broadcasting Corporation, and the pioneer who envisioned this new medium as something more than just a plaything for the rich.
Of course, the real obsession at hand may be Sorkin’s, whose fascination with television has provided the backdrop for two love-it-or-hate-it TV series, ABC’s Sports Night and NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Indeed, The Farnsworth Invention marks Sorkin’s first return to the Great White Way in 18 years (since A Few Good Men), and you instantly realize how much his decided gifts for razor-sharp dialogue and incisive characterizations have been missed on the stage.
Which isn’t to say that The Farnsworth Invention is exactly a well-made play — or historically accurate. In the manner of last season’s Frost/Nixon, it’s alternatively narrated by two characters — in this case, Farnsworth and Sarnoff, who freely comment on each other’s lives as well as to each other, although historically, the pair never met in their race to the finish line. As in Frost/Nixon, the conceit allows the playwright to quickly dispense with exposition, allowing the show’s rapid-fire pace to rarely falter — the show clocks in at a tidy two hours — while occasionally creating an unwanted distancing effect.
The crux of the matter, as Sorkin sees it, is that neither Farnsworth and his ragtag lab team — including his brother-in-law Clifford (Kyle Fabel) — nor RCA’s team of top scientists, most notably Vladimir Zworykin (Bruce McKenzie), could solve the puzzle of television transmission on their own. To his credit, Sorkin never lets the science overwhelm the proceedings; advance readings of engineering textbooks are hardly necessary to comprehend the goings-on. You may not know how to build a television set once the play is over, but you certainly know why it was so difficult for even the greatest minds of the 20th Century to figure out how to actually make one work.
Nor does Sorkin spend an undue amount of time on his protagonists’ personal lives, focusing instead on a few choice scenes with Sarnoff’s slightly haughty, French-born wife Lizette (Nadia Bowers) and Farnsworth’s earthy wife Pem (a very effective Alexandra Wilson) to round out the portrait of his leading men. Perhaps more time spent with these women would give the show an extra dash of heart — the thing it’s most lacking — but Sorkin’s focus remains steadfast.
Most importantly, for all of the situation’s David vs. Goliath aspects, Sorkin resists the temptation to paint either of his lead characters in shades of black and white — and he is more than ably aided in that goal by the superb performances of Azaria and Simpson, which truly anchor the production. (Indeed, the 16-person ensemble, while consistently fine, don’t make much of an impact.) Sarnoff, whom Farnsworth fans have long wanted to paint as a villain and thief, is most definitely a man who knows and gets what he wants — not always by the cleanest possible means — but also a person of conscience and good intention. For his part, Farnsworth — due perhaps to naiveté, insecurity, or even an overwhelming belief in the greater good rather than personal glory — comes off as a brilliant child-man who is ultimately his own worst enemy.
As it happens, The Farnsworth Invention is the first of the affected shows to officially “open” after the 19-day Broadway strike. There’s perhaps a certain delicious irony that a man who has repeatedly proved how entertaining television can be is also the one to remind us how important — and entertaining — live theater really is.