Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Did Critics Enjoy Sorkin's Invention?

Did Critics Enjoy Sorkin's Invention?

Last evening, Aaron Sorkin's first play on the Great White Way in nearly twenty years opened at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. Directed by Des McAnuff, The Farnsworth Invention pits Hank Azaria against Jimmi Simpson in the supposedly true story on the race to invent television. Critics were lukewarm at best.

Calling this "vintage Sorkin and crackling prime-time theater," Linda Winer of Newsday offers about the most glowing review I could find: "Breezy and shrewd, smart-alecky and idealistic, the quick-moving drama presents two sides to the still-contentious story behind the invention of television....For all the double and triple casting, nobody is generic. Sorkin can pile more details than the mind can process about the mechanic versus the electronic TV. But he makes sure we get it. He also can set the stage for the Great Depression and the moonwalk with a few miraculously brief bursts of information."

Noting how "Sorkin has gotten some -- possibly a lot -- of his facts wrong," New York Post's Clive Barnes still offers two and a half stars: "Sorkin's take on the Farnsworth/Sarnoff standoff would be better suited to a screen, either big or small. Even now, while crackling with crisp dialogue, The Farnsworth Invention often has the air of a clumsy stage adaptation of, say, 'Citizen Kane.' Its very busyness detracts from it as a stage play -- plus the fact that all but two of its 19 actors play multiple roles....(McAnuff)'s helped by the smartly minimalist stage design of Klara Zieglerova, and the general performance of his Protean cast, particularly Simpson as the innocent genius, a Jimmy-Stewartishly rumpled Farnsworth, and the smoothly opportunistic and charmingly ruthless Azaria as the nicely tailored Sarnoff."

Eric Grode of The New York Sun offers this middling review: "Mr. Sorkin...has brought over some unfortunate habits from the left coast, including a tendency to create dramatic parallels where none exist and a weakness for soupy background music. But he has also imported his shrewd ear for plotting and his unmistakable flair for well-crafted paragraphs caroming off the halls of power. And he has found in Des McAnuff the rare director capable of turning all those painstakingly assembled anecdotes into a breezy parable, one about two men with huge dreams and the invention that proved bigger and more rapacious than even they could imagine."

Calling it an "information-crammed, surface-skimming biodrama," Ben Brantley of The New York Times is dismissive: "you’re likely to leave The Farnsworth Invention feeling that you have just watched an animated Wikipedia entry, fleshed out with the sort of anecdotal scenes that figure in 're-enactments' on E! channel documentaries and true-crime shows. This two-hour play is a fast-moving sequence of reflex-stimulating information- and emotion-bites. It never pauses long enough to find depth in any of them. Mr. Sorkin clearly had higher intentions."

Referring to "Sorkin's ingratiating approach" and "manicured dialogue," David Rooney of Variety is quite critical: "Farnsworth never fully moves beyond its stream of overexplained factoids. What's worse is that it's morally questionable....Sorkin wants to have it both ways. He depicts Sarnoff as single-minded in his focus on personal glory and corporate profit to the exclusion of all other concerns. But then after crushing Farnsworth and consigning the true inventor of television to obscurity (in lengthy legal proceedings reduced to a single perfunctory scene), Sarnoff gets to imagine the rapprochement between the two men and acknowledge the underdog's achievement. He also gets to show tearful remorse and big-picture perspective in a manipulative closing speech."

Discounting the show that "seemed to have everything going for it," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News is also negative: "So why is Farnsworth disappointing and ho-hum enough to make you want to change channels? Sorkin's framework -- Sarnoff and Farnsworth co-narrate the story -- automatically adds a layer of distance. And though the play is informative, it's seldom deeply involving....Both stars give fine performances, but their characters often don't rise much above one dimension....Dramatic license is one thing. But a play about the invention of television that fails to blaze in living color is another."

Frankly, as much as I enjoyed the first act, I felt very cheated by the second, which clearly should have been labeled "The Sorkin Invention." Newsday's Linda Winer is right to point out that there are plenty of people questioning Sorkin's conceit in adding a contrived confrontation between Farnsworth and Sarnoff when it admittedly never happened. She's also right to question where all the outrage was when Frost/Nixon used a similarly fictitious 11 o'clock device to propel its story (she clearly wasn't reading my review in which I said, "[S]uch flagrant abuse of the facts borders on an abrogation of artistic license.").

You can view my full SOB Review for The Farnsworth Invention by clicking here.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
The Farnsworth Invention (The SOB Review) (December 4, 2007)
Don't Touch That Dial: Farnsworth Invention Opens (December 3, 2007)
All Of Great White Way Gleams Tonight (November 29, 2007)
Strike Fallout, Part Two? Opening Nights In Question (November 12, 2007)
Television Comes To Broadway (June 21, 2007)

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