Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Farnsworth Invention

‘FARNSWORTH INVENTION’ is fascinating “history” lesson at Beck

If you believe ‘THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION,’ now being staged at Beck, some historical “facts,” aren’t facts at all. The Wright Brothers didn’t invent the first airplane, Thomas Edison didn’t create the first light bulb, and though he had the first U.S. patent for a television receiver, Vladrmi Zworkin didn’t develop the first working television in this country. According to the script, the latter credit, was based on the machinations of RCA’s David Sarnoff, who wanted to control the potentially prosperous video industry. The recognition should have gone to a Utah farm boy genius named Philo Farnsworth.

In reality, the play is not historically accurate. It shows Farnsworth being defeated legally by Sarnoff, and then spending his life in obscurity and in an alcoholic stupor. In fact, Farnsworth won the lawsuit, received a $1 million payment from RCA for the purchase of his TV patents, and went on to have an illustrious career in technological research. In respect to the man, there is a statue of Farnsworth in the U.S. Capitol Building.

The play, written by Emmy Award winner Aaron Sorkin (TV’s ‘THE WEST WING’), opened on Broadway in December of 2007 and ran for four months in spite of very mixed reviews.

Irrespective of the lack of validity, the play makes for good theatre. There is intrigue, evil versus good, and a “hero” you can cheer for and feel bad for in his defeat.

Director Scott Spence has staged the play well. He keeps the action focused and the tension high. Unfortunately, on opening night some of the cast was having trouble remembering their lines and the pacing was slightly off, but this should improve as the very talented cast, which includes three Actor’s Equity performers, start feeling their stage legs and get it right.

Sebastian Hawkes Orr, as the older Philo Farnsworth, has the right Utah hayseed demeanor and gate. He is believable, though at times he spoke so softly that he was hard to hear. Jesse Markowitz was right on character as the young Farnsworth, garnering many laughs as he outsmarted his junior high science teacher.

The usual dependable Paul Floriano flubbed lines, but should recover as the production continues. His David Sarnoff had the right “bad guy” undertone.

Dana Hart effectively changed his voice and presence to effectively interpret several characters, and Jeffrey Grover did a nice job of characterizing Vladmir Zworykin. The rest of the huge cast were quite believable.

Trad Burns’ scenic and lighting designs helped create the right illusions and Richard Ingraham’s ever present sounds were a good idea, but sometimes got in the way of clearly allowing the oft-under projecting cast’s words to carry into the audience without listening clutter.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION’ is an interesting piece of theatre that is well worth seeing. Hopefully as the cast settles in some of the opening night issues of line stumbles and the need for appropriate vocal projection will be resolved.