It’s not a good sign, perhaps, that the first show out of the gate after the Broadway strike, Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention, should be about the discovery of theater’s mortal enemy, television. Worse: Mr. Sorkin (creator of The West Wing) has written the kind of pseudo-historical docudrama that would be perfect for television.
At least the play’s technical gobbledygook about cathode ray tubes is marginally easier to grasp than Copenhagen’s Heisenberg principle. It’s not really meant to be understood, however. It’s there to envelop us like fog. Science lessons work quite well on Broadway, making us feel good about ourselves.
The evening begins with RCA mogul David Sarnoff (a somber Hank Azaria) informing us about the mystery of light. “Light bounces,” he announces, “and I wanted to make sure everyone knew that, or 20 minutes in you’re gonna be thinking, ‘What the hell is happening?’”
Be that as it may, don’t feel too badly if, as the evening wears on, you find you can’t tell the difference between a multipactor oscillation and a photon. Sarnoff, our host, sets the scene for the story of the doomed hero Philo T. Farnsworth (played by the excellent Jimmi Simpson) with this bizarre announcement: “Now it’s 1921 and not a lot of people were thinking about electrons.”
Not a lot of people then; not a lot today.
And here’s what’s happening about an hour and a half into the play: Vladimir Zworykin, the devious Russian scientist, is describing to his lawyers how he discovered television before Farnsworth. “The system disclosed by my application,” Zworykin explains, “utilizes a cathode ray tube as the element for translating the optical image into the electrical wave …”
Whereupon the excited Sarnoff interrupts: “Now something incredible’s about to happen, and these lawyers are thoroughly unprepared for it.”
Zworykin continues, “… so as to reconstruct there an electro-optical representation of the impressed or in-falling optical image.”
Don’t you get it? He’s discovered how to store the light! Zworykin replaced the fluorescent end wall with a new kind of composite or mosaic electrode in the form of droplets, otherwise known as globules, to solve Farnsworth’s mistakenly continuous potassium coating.
I love theater, don’t you? We learn lots of stuff we only thought we knew. We learn that without globule mosaic electrodes, we wouldn’t have television to keep us happy.
Alas, The Farnsworth Invention is swamped by all its unstoppable science lessons (which are rattled off at top speed as if everyone onstage—and off—wants them over and done with). Mr. Sorkin explains far too much—including act two’s unnecessary, clichéd opening scene that depicts the familiar panic on the New York Stock Exchange during the 1929 crash. (“Selling 2,000 shares at 81!” “Gimme 77 and a half!” “Get me the chairman of the Federal Reserve!”)
The real drama, such as it is, is crowded into the kind of brief, snappy scenes that summarize the essentials and work well on TV. After the early success of his military courtroom drama A Few Good Men (1989), Mr. Sorkin’s years spent working on The West Wing and other television shows have left an indelible mark—down to The Farnsworth Invention’s sound effects, and the swelling background music that usually signals a cut to a commercial.
His protagonists announce who they are: Philo Farnsworth, distracted genius, “ridiculous hayseed savant” obsessed with inventing the world’s first telly. He’s no match, obviously, for Sarnoff, the smart Jewish boy with the dry wit who fled a shtetl pogrom when he was 10 years old and never forgot it. (Shtetl is explained for us, too: “a Yiddish word that means ghetto.”) He’s an alpha male, the kind of tough guy who says, “The ends do justify the means. That’s what means are for.”
Many years pass over the course of The Farnsworth Invention, yet nobody ever ages. There are Guest Appearances (Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks), and knowing tourist references (“He called it Radio City”). There’s one very good, very old joke. And there are two predictable themes: the potted history of radio and Sarnoff’s rise to phenomenal power, along with the life and tragic times of poor Farnsworth—a life that in turn could have been made for television (devoted wife; early death of son; serious drinking problem; ends up broke and cheated of wealth, TV patent and rightful place in history by the evil Sarnoff).
This formulaic docudrama is directed by Des McAnuff (of Jersey Boys) with his usual frightening, formulaic efficiency. The feel and frantic pace of the two-hour piece resembles Jersey Boys so much that it wouldn’t be surprising if everyone broke out into a chorus of “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
We take Mr. Sorkin’s story with a big pinch of salt. Farnsworth’s biographer, Paul Schatzkin, has disputed many of the historic facts in the play—including its conclusion that Farnsworth lost his complicated patent battle. The reverse happened: He won. Nor was he broke: Sarnoff paid him a million dollars in 1939.
The woolly disclaimer from the producers that the show is really “a memory play” in which the adversaries “acknowledge their own unreliability” scarcely helps. Are we seriously meant to believe Sarnoff when he announces at the play’s end that he can’t remember whether he won or lost the most important legal battle of his life?