“The Farnsworth Invention is actually very complex with 150 characters at more than 50 locations,” said Des McAnuff, director of Aaron Sorkin’s new Broadway play The Farnsworth Invention, which opened to previews last night. Mr. McAnuff stood in jeans and a black suit coat lined with multi-colored pinstripes in front of a full house at the Music Box Theatre. “So please forgive us if we need to stop. I’ll come out with some witty theatrical anecdotes and explain what’s going on. If things get bad, I have some John Sincere poems…”
And the crowd chuckled.
The house was packed, and not just with the usual graying Broadway-strolling set. Although the majority of the mezzanine level was crowded by zaftig, balding gentlemen and cane-assisted, bespectacled ladies accessorized with scarves and brooches (by the way, black leather jackets seem to be the outerwear of choice for older, theater-going hipsters, with about 20 spotted in a single night), there were certainly some fresh-faced folk leafing through Playbill before the show, especially on the balcony which seemed to be the Music Box Theatre’s version of the kids’ table. New York University students in knitted caps and young 20-something ladies in H&M dresses abounded.
Minutes before the show began, a young man in a gray American Apparel hoodie nudged his 20-something female companion with long brown hair and a shock of bleached-blond bangs. “Check it out, it’s Aaron Sorkin.”
Yup, there he was. Looking fine in glasses and a loose-fitting tan suit. He was surrounded by assistants and friends at the back of the mezzanine level, and the Sorkin contingent in the audience craned its collective neck to glimpse him, point and nod.
There wouldn’t be time to chat with him just yet. Producers and creators scattered about the audience certainly seemed anxious, yellow notepads and pens at the ready, as the giant curtain decorated in mathematical symbols rose to reveal Mr. Sorkin’s first big project since his television show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was cancelled last year.
The Farnsworth Invention takes on the advent of television in the 1920’s and 30’s. A slick-haired, sharp-suited Hank Azaria is Lang Sarnoff, the president of RCA. Under the glittering lights of Radio City Music Hall, his armies of Ph.D.-bearing scientists and pinstriped executives are racing against a ragtag team of inventors in Chicago, lead by Philo T. Farnsworth. Played by Jimmi Simpson (think of a cross between James Spader and Cillian Murphy), Farnsworth is a mathematical genius from backwoods Utah, who’s more interested in electrons and copper wires than notoriety and fortune. RCA would eventually pilfer his ideas and take the credit for inventing the most influential device in the 20th Century.
The theater blogs have been anxiously awaiting Mr. Sorkin’s new play. It was originally supposed to be a movie, produced by New Line Cinema. After the deal fell through, the play was presented by the La Jolla Playhouse in California earlier this year. The Broadway contingent has been buzzing about its arrival to New York, with theater previews this summer lauding most anticipated plays of the season, and for the surprising population of Webby types obsessed with the Farnsworth-Sarnoff conflict, the play has become an obsession. There are entire blogs dedicated to the conflict.
Mr. Sorkin is a prime candidate to take on the evils of capitalism pitted against the innocence and idealism of creation. He made his Broadway debut at 28 with the courtroom drama A Few Good Men and wrote the subsequent film adaptation, which was nominated for four Academy Awards.
After becoming a television superstar as creator and scribe behind The West Wing, one of the most beloved shows on television, Mr. Sorkin took a sardonic eye to television with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, about the inner workings of a late-night comedy show. Through the characters, Mr. Sorkin wrote took on one of the most influential mediums in the world, asking tough questions and contemplating big ideas about the meaning of television. Studio 60 was often considered Mr. Sorkin’s personal response to NBC, after a contentious leave from The West Wing. Mr. Sorkin wrote every episode except for one in the first four years of the beloved show, which caused cost and scheduling problems. After a 2001 airport drug arrest, in which police found crack and ’shrooms on Mr. Sorkin, NBC put added pressure on the scribe after The West Wing’s once mighty ratings buckled under the colossal success of “American Idol” on Fox and ABC’s “The Bachelor/Bachelorette.” Mr. Sorkin gave NBC his final rose, and left the network in 2003.
Work on Studio 60 soon followed. For the show, which debuted in 2005, he wrote rants that lambasted television for cowering at pressure groups, buckling to advertisers and watering down programming with reality shows.
In the play, Sarnoff is our villain and Farnsworth our protagonist. But Mr. Sorkin is forgiving of both. Sarnoff has an idealism about the potential of television (much like Mr. Sorkin himself), claiming that it will end illiteracy and war (the line received an uproarious cackle from the crowd).
Mr. Sorkin is familiar with this conflict. While discussing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with The New York Times last year, he “said the series would present a balanced picture of the television business. ‘The biggest wrong assumption about this show is that it’s about the artists and the suits, and the artists are always right, and the show is an indictment of television,’ Mr. Sorkin said. ‘The network characters are not ninnies who don’t care about what’s on the air. They are more often caught between a rock and a hard place and trying to do the right thing.’ The play ends with an emotional and hilarious speech from Mr. Azaria. When the curtain went down, a few women in the front row wiped tears from their eyes. Nearly the entire house stood as the actors bowed on stage.
The crowd bustled out onto 45th Street, and Mr. Sorkin was approached by a colleague. “What a great opening night!” she exclaimed.
It was a good night. The audience laughed when they should have and abstained during the serious moments. Only a few lines were fumbled on stage. Mr. Sorkin seemed sheepish. “We missed a couple of sound cues, but yeah.”