At one point near the end of Aaron Sorkin’s drama about the birth of television, RCA mogul and NBC founder David Sarnoff denies he stole the medium that changed human history from its true inventor, 14-year-old farm boy Philo T. Farnsworth. It’s a bit of grand larceny that history more of less agrees happened – and happened pretty much the way Sorkin tells it, industrial espionage and all. But in any case, Sarnoff quickly follows up directly to the audience, he stole television “fair and square.”
That bizarre afterthought, which elicited healthy laughter throughout the theater, was a capsule version of the intellectual or moral problem with The Farnsworth Invention. In his time-bending narrative, featuring Sarnoff and Farnsworth as what seem competing narrators from beyond the grave, Sorkin comes remarkably close to accepting Sarnoff’s vision. Or perhaps of simply excusing it because the man and his Russian-Jewish family had been driven from their homes by one of the czar’s many pogroms. Or perhaps forgiving it because Sarnoff keeps insisting that television isn’t about the money but about ending ignorance, hatred and war. Or perhaps, something else.
There have, after all, been several plays – and probably even more movies – about the brave little guy fighting City Hall, battling evil corporate America to protect an honest claim on the sweat of his brow. In the most inspiring of such tales, some of which are “Based on a True Story,” the little guy wins and is allowed to enjoy the wealth he deserves for his creation, plus the satisfaction of being recognized by history. The Farnsworth Invention in not one of those tales.
Sorkin uses his immense storytelling gifts – think of A Few Good Men, think of The West Wing – to serve up a love poem to America’s creative spunk and genius. And a fairly idealistic love poem it is. The throwaway lines near the end about the true inventor of television dying unknown, drunk and broke are darkly ironic, no question. But they also seem more than a little callous, especially delivered by the character who engineered the corporate chess moves that consigned Farnsworth to his tragic fate.
Within this troubling moral ambiguity – we want more resolution, more good-over-evil, more something – there certainly is that David-and-Goliath story we also want. At a time when America’s biggest electronic companies (GE, Westinghouse, RCA, etc.) were putting their best minds and biggest budgets on scientists developing television, the greatest breakthroughs were discovered by a lovable gang of misfits working in a small lab in San Francisco. The fact that we come to know Farnsworth a little, especially when his young son dies of strep throat at a crucial moment in the experiments, only makes the final outcome more painful.
Alley regular Brandon Hearnsberger brings an aw-shucks, Jimmy Stewart purity to the role of Farnsworth, playing him as the kind of geeky, optimistic, can-do simpleton who in a thousand labs in a thousand cities gave us the modern world. We want him to win. Company member Jeffrey Bean shines with ambition and some rage as Farnworth’s nemesis Sarnoff, a driven “What Makes Sammy Run?”immigrant whose constant spouting of broadcast ideals gets lost when push comes to shove. And at this level of American business, it always does. We want Sarnoff to lose, even though we know the history books call him the Father of Television – and most don’t bother to mention Philo T. Farnsworth at all.
Around those two antagonists, a remarkable ensemble has been assembled by director David Cromer, including many actors who take on more than one role as the story moves through the years. Paul Hope is particularly impressive as Bill Crocker, the big-business guy who backs Farnsworth financially, as is James Black as early Sarnoff radio rival Walter Gifford and later in a deft comic turn as movie idol Douglas Fairbanks.
As we’ve seen in Few Good Men and especially in The West Wing, Sorkin is great with tables full of men, and that’s what most of The Farnsworth Invention is. But he gives the Alley women some things to do too, particularly Sara Gaston as Sarnoff’s conspiratorial secretary Betty and Emily Neves as Farnsworth’s wife Pem. Filling in for Todd Waite on Saturday night, Philip Lehl pulled out a remarkably adept Russian accent as the Sarnoff scientist who rightly and wrongly got credit for completing the television puzzle, Vladimir Zworkyin. – John DeMers
Photo: Brandon Hearnsberger, Chris Hutchinson, Todd Waite