By Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Nick Bowling
At TimeLine Theatre Company
The drama of genius and egos involving the invention of television is powerfully told on TimeLine’s stage.
Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing and A Few Good Men) loves stories about powerful visionaries. His Chicago premiere of The Farnsworth Invention is a fast paced historical drama about the invention of television. It ultimately pits Russian emigrant, David Sarnoff (1891-1971) the founder of NBC and Chairman of RCA – pure Eastern Establishment mogul verses the hayseed, Western genius visionary, Philo T. Farnsworth (1906-1971) – the inventor of most of the elements for television. Sorkin’s play is the dramatization of the lives of Farnsworth – the unknown scientist versus the visionary communications genius – David Sarnoff who launched commercial radio and TV. Sarnoff was a tough, shrewd businessman and power broker. Farnsworth was a problem-solving open-minded, trusting scientist. Both men lived in a world that beckoned them toward “What’s Next?”
Director Nick Bowling uses TimeLine’s runway stage to tell the complex two-sided story in a brisk, yet easy to follow, 40 scene show with 16 actors playing 70 roles. Narrated by PJ Powers, as Sarnoff and countered by Rob Fagin, as Farnsworth, the history and personalities involved in the invention of television is told from both points of view. Powers and Fagin are outstanding as the fanatical visionaries both consumed by the possibilities of television. Watching this play, I realize how much TV has shaped the second half of the 20th Century and how an unknown (Farnsworth) and a power businessman (Sarnoff) contributed to our perception of the world.
Much history of the 1920-30-40’s is smartly covered in Bowling’s quick short scenes. Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue illuminates the action and the world of ideas and theories that demands our full attention. So much is covered, yet we quickly are enticed into the world of invention. The journey has a mysterious quality that keeps us on the edge of our seats wondering what will happen next. We wonder, was Farnsworth robbed and was Sarnoff a visionary or a power-grabbing tycoon? See this show and form your own conclusion.
While PJ Powers and Rob Fagin in the leads were authentic, intense and effective, the ensemble was outstanding as the 14 actors played 68 roles. The many scene changes necessitated that many had to do quick costume changes as they became another character. Among the fine supporting performances were Tom McElroy, Bill McGough, Sean Patrick Fawcett, Zach Gray, Paul Dunckel and Justine C. Turner.
John Culbert’s impressive set design, Mike Tutaj’s old-time TV videos and Lindsey Pate’s accurate period costumes each contributed to the stellar production values of TimeLine Theatre’s The Farnsworth Invention. The play is a both character driven and a historical sketch of the back story of the invention of the world-changing television. It is exciting drama.
At TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, Chicago, IL, call 773-281-8463, www.timelinetheatre.com, tickets $25 – $35, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission.
Another point of view about:
The Farnsworth Invention
By: Aaron Sorkin
Directed by: Nick Bowling
Chicago Premiere a History Lesson with Heart.
Although this was my first time seeing a show at Timeline Theatre, I am familiar with their cannon of work that has always sought to entertain and educate at the same time. The Chicago Premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s new play, The Farnsworth Invention, is no exception. In the first act this becomes problematic because the information overshadows the character development, although this information is very fascinating. Act two finds its footing, brings the play to a resounding conclusion and teaches a piece of history that many people my age know little to nothing about.
The play is about the invention of television, and the men who struggled for ownership. Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin) is the son of a potato farmer, but is incredibly smart and becomes obsessed with building the first television along with a rag-tag group of scientists, including his brother-in-law, sister, and wife. He struggles through hardship and against all odds to project the first live image, but is unable to complete an image for mass distribution. David Sarnoff (PJ Powers), a poor Russian Jewish immigrant rises from the ranks to become the powerful president of RCA. He brings radio to the mainstream and assembles a crack team of scientists to complete a working television before Farnsworth. Both men tell the majority of the story through monologues, as they challenge the validity of one another’s claims. This device is fascinating to me because the audience never knows whom to believe. All of the information in the story comes from actual sources, but Mr. Sorkin is well aware that everyone may not have been telling the truth. This also makes for some rather amusing moments and verbal sparring that keeps the audience rooting for both of these gentlemen at the same time (even though Farnsworth is far more sympathetic, he is a very flawed person). The play is full of interesting tid-bits of history that sometimes do not move the plot forward, but are fascinating none-the-less. There is a lot to admire about the play because it is about the people who changed the face of the country; the pioneers who ushered in a new age and dreamed beyond what anyone else thought was possible. It makes you wonder what we are in store for over the next fifty years.
Director Nick Bowling has navigated this exceedingly wordy and informational script so expertly that the pace never drags. The ensemble transition from scene to scene with little to no down time so even the wordy/informational parts moves along at a rather brisk pace. The tone of the play is set from the very first moment, with a rather amusing way to ask the audience to silence their cell phones. The ensemble of actors, all sixteen of them, are brilliant. Many of the supporting players act as the running crew as well and play several different parts. PJ Powers performance as David Sarnoff is wonderfully multi-layered. He embodies a man of great intelligence and power, but allows him to be sympathetic and conflicted by his decisions at the same time. Rob Fagin as Philo T. Farnsworth is manically lovable; a genius struggling with his shortcomings, personal demons, and family life. He navigates the complex scientific jargon with ease and meaning. In their final scenes together, Powers and Fagin light the stage on fire. The ensemble is so strong that to name all of the great performances would make this an exceedingly long review, but I would like to make special mention of Bill McGough. His brief roles as Justin Tolman, Farnsworth’s high school science teacher, and Walter Gifford, President of AT&T, leave a lasting impression. I had to double check the program after the show to make sure that it was the same actor. The same accolades are deserved for the entire technical crew. The set is simple and appropriate, the lights transition easily from scene to scene, and the costumes wonderful. However, the person who I would like to recognize is Properties Designer Emily Guthrie. There is a massive amount of props in this show, many from the early 19th century, which would be a huge task for any properties designer.
The television is something I have always taken for granted because it has always been there. To see the struggle and hardship it took to make the television gives me a new perspective on what I have always considered to be a normal part of life. I was lukewarm to the play at first; it was informational but did not do enough to keep my interest dramatically in the first act. However, once the show gets going, it burns on all cylinders and doesn’t quit until the lights come down. There is a lot to love, and if you haven’t learned something new by the time the show is over I would be very surprised. As I mentioned, this was my first Timeline production and I can not wait to see the next one because chances are I’m going to learn something new.
Date of Review: 4/18/10
At Timeline Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago, IL 60657. Tickets $25-$35. Student and rates available. Call 773-281-8463 x24, www.timelinetheatre.com. Thursdays at 7:30PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 4:00 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PM, Wednesdays at 7:30 PM starting May 26. Running time is approximately 2 hour 20 minutes with intermission. Through July 24, 2010.