Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Farnsworth Invention (The SOB Review)

The Farnsworth Invention (The SOB Review) - Music Box Theatre, New York, NY

** (out of ****)

With nary a boob tube in sight, it's astonishing that the backstory on the invention of television is playing out on the unlikeliest of all living art forms: the stage.

But against Klara Zieglerova's unimaginitive set, which, let's be honest, inexplicably looks more like a retread of her dual-level Jersey Boys design gussied up like a retro Japanese steakhouse -- I'm not kidding! -- Des McAnuff wisely keeps all channel surfers at bay by focusing their attention on his two outstanding principle actors in Aaron Sorkin's second Broadway play The Farnsworth Invention.

The two exceptional actors -- Hank Azaria as the irascibly boorish David Sarnoff, legendary founder of NBC, and Jimmi Simpson as the boyish man who went down in history as the asterisk, the titular Philo T. Farnsworth -- complement each other perfectly with enough yin and yang to feel more like you're caught in a quick moving giant yo-yo of one-upsmanship: one moment one of them is up in the race to "invent" television, the next moment he's down and vice versa.

There's a particularly captivating moment during the First Act when the initial promise of a televised live picture crystalizes that's positively electrifying. It hints at just how great this show could have been. The irony is that McAnuff never allows his audience to see that picture. By deliberately keeping the one single prototype to be found in all of The Farnsworth Invention turned away from us, we're never truly allowed in. Faster than you can say "photon," the magic Sorkin had succeeded in building gets zapped away.

Making matters worse, in the Second Act, Sorkin resorts to sheer melodrama bordering on pure fiction. It's a pity Sorkin chooses to veer so far from reality in the climactic dust-up between Farnsworth and Sarnoff. It's an exposive scene to be sure, but the moment is ruined by an 11 o'clock admission that what we were to believe constitutes a first attempt at reality TV is instead as bogus as a Jerry Springer episode. Just like with Springer, we feel had. Only here, we didn't see it coming.

Even more frustrating is Sorkin's feeble attempt at a misty-eyed finale. Given what a certifiable SOB Sarnoff is made out to be throughout the proceedings, how can anyone believe he'd shed anything but crocodile tears for Farnsworth. Apparently Sorkin does what he does "best" for television -- he signs off with a hackneyed, melodramatic conclusion.

Maybe that works for a made-for-TV movie, but on a Broadway stage, we just need a better picture with finer tuning.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Related Stories:
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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At 04 December, 2007, Blogger Esther said...

That's a very fascinating point about how the audience never actually sees a television picture. I admit it never dawned on me until you mentioned it!

I think Sorkin's portrait of the two men definitely veered toward stereotype and melodrama. I liked Jimmi Simpson's portrayal of Farnsworth as a somewhat naive scientific genius, and the contrast with Hank Azaria's driven-to-succeed immigrant. But they're a little too neat: the ruthless big-city executive taking advantage of the innocent country boy. I can't help wonder whether those portraits are true to life. The more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I am about having the two main characters reduced, essentially, to caricatures. What else did Sorkin make up besides that pivotal scene?

Plus, there was an awful lot of exposition, with each man telling the story rather than letting us see it for ourselves. And I did get a bit lost with some of the scientific jargon.

At 04 December, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, You're right about the exposition, but I was willing to live with that since the two actors told the story so well.

But where I had serious trouble was during the second act that 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 hadn't read my review in which I said, "[S]uch flagrant abuse of the facts borders on an abrogation of artistic license."

I understand that certain liberties can be taken in dramatizing historical events, but I take real issue with trying to rewrite history.

At 12 December, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My God was this play a bore. I like Sorkin's TV shows. However, I was nodding off in this bad History lesson.
Two days later, I found myself laughing and gasping in hysterics at what is truly entertaining Theatre. "Osage County" . I ran from my History class in High school. Why did I listen to Sorkin's lecture for a hundred dolllars?

At 17 December, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's too bad none of you understand the concept of theatre and the fact that a playwright is allowed to take artistic license. Sorkin is saying "What if... What if these two guys met? Would they agree with the other books that have been written about the history of tv?" Sorkin is purposely "making up" a scenario. That was his intention. Have any of you read any of the history of the invention of TV? If you had, you'd have realized that there is not one book that says the same thing. All of the books conflict with one another.
The theatre is a place where one can tell a story. A STORY. The Farnsworth Invention is not supposed to be a documentary. It is a "What if" play and Sorkin and McAnuff have been saying that from the start. It's theatre. Enjoy it for that and don't try to delve into facts that you yourselves don't even know.

At 17 December, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dear Someone:

Thanks for sharing your comments. Glad you found me.

Having seen hundreds of stage shows from the audience perspective, I do think I've at least gained some modicum of understanding of theatre. And I dare say that my review was relatively mild compared to some of the established mainstream critics who weren't so charitable.

To be honest, I felt absolutely cheated and manipulated by Sorkin's fictional dust-up between his two principles. And just as you have every right to enjoy his fabrication, I have every right as a serious student of history to be outraged.

At 17 December, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Someone: I agree with what you say is a "made up scenario" That's fine. But, my issue with this Play was that it didn't present either argument/scenario in a compelling and or dramatic way at all. It was a dry Play stuffed with too much boring information.As a movie of the week it may work. On stage, it does not. And, I take issue with the "none of us understand the concept of theatre" remark. I see well over forty shows a year from coast to coast and have been involved with the Theatre arts for twenty years. This is all just a fun and healthy forum for discussion and debate.

At 17 December, 2007, Blogger Esther said...

I think the problem is that Sorkin presents so much of "The Farnsworth Invention" as fact, and then he suddenly springs this total fabrication on the audience very late in the game.

At 19 December, 2007, Blogger Aaron Riccio said...

Just saw the play, and while I'm with you on the set, the whole point about fabrications isn't "sprung" at the very end -- Sorkin keeps dropping hints in the way they argue about the tales that they're telling. Remember the Act 1 argument about Sarnoff's biographer? Or the bickering about whose turn it is whenever the lies start spreading? The play is a far more glitzier and pat version of what Pinter works for at "The Homecoming" (or at least according to John Lahr's take on it): it's two people in a competition about whose reality is correct, and to show that picture would be to actually GIVE a truth, rather than to spin it, as we have unfortunately done with that great invention.


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