AISLE SAY New York
THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION
by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Des McAnuff
Starring Hank Azaria and Jimmi Simpson
Music Box Theatre / 239 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036 / (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by David Spencer
It really doesn't matter than Anna Leonowens was never a figure in the Court of Siam, nor that King Mongkut spoke fluent English, spent most of his life in monkhood, and was so progressive he is known as "The Father of Thai Scientists" (in his diaries Anna rates only one brief mention). It's irrelevant that Eva Peron nee Duarte at least arguably did do the best she could for her people and that her reputation as a fascist had to do with the timing of her then-secret romance to Argentine President Juan Peron, during a period when he sympathized with the Axis powers. Nobody much cares that Salieri didn't actually murder Mozart, spiritually or otherwise; and hey, guess what, the Declaration of Independence was signed before the Continental Congress debated it.
But the plays and musicals that have reframed these bits of history for dramatic purposes have, for the general public, become the definitive renderings of these events. For good or ill, in popular culture, history is not what was, but what thrilled us or moved us in The King and I, Evita, Amadeus and 1776.
And it's kind of perversely wonderful, or at least I think so: the power of art to be so transformative that the provocative philosophical theme of a dramatization (which is, of course, what gives the dramatization its power) can overtake the actual facts to create a kind of folk history. Not that I think anybody should forget real history or be so incurious as to avoid learning what real history is...but even knowing better, I still see the figures from these plays, feel the dynamics of the scripted interactions, as real.
Well, add another dramatic masterwork to the list.
Whatever the real truth is about the competition between television's unsung inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and media mogul David Sarnoff, who brazenly co-opted the patent, The Farnsworth Invention, by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men, An American President, Sports Night) will pretty much be the definitive telling for the general public and for all time. It's that powerful, that wonderful and gives us characters that are that iconic.
More than that, it's a big American play in the nearly-extinct tradition: cast of 19, multiple settings, and real U S of A American themes: the pioneer spirit, Yankee ingenuity, free enterprise, a legal system that can be swayed by credentials and money over truth and hard data, and the legend of the little guy who did an enormous thing and got marginalized for his trouble.
Both Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) and Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) narrate, their own stories and each other's, arguing with each other over fine points and philosophy as they do, stepping in and out of scenes to reenact what "really" happened, and from the start, I mean right from the start, you know you're in the grip of something extraordinary.
Now these days, something new has been added to critic-ing, which is, most times, if you ask, the press agents will give you a script; I'd forgotten to ask for a Farnsworth one at the matinee I'd attended with the lady in my life, who'd been equally impressed, but I was seeing a show that evening and I went back to the Music Box Theatre to pick one up, and I read it on the way to my parents' house later, to have it in my system again, gave it to my dad (himself a retired aerospace engineer) who devoured it in one sitting after midnight (he knew well the Farnsworth-Sarnoff story), he thought it was terrific right off the page, my mom (who doesn't get tech stuff at all) devoured it the day after, and none of this is really important except for the fact that it illustrates how this material has the power to grip you, whether you have a dramatic background, a layman's innocence or an insider's sophistication. Because it tells a deeply human story that touches upon timeless issues.
This is the opening speech. Sarnoff: "Good evening, I'm David Sarnoff. There's a rule in storytelling that says you never tell your audience something they already know but I'm gonna chance it anyway by starting like this: The only reason you can see me right now is because light is reflecting off of me. Light bounces and I wanted to make sure everyone knew that or 20 minutes in you're gonna be thinking what in the hell is happening? Can we show everyone else?" (Pools of light hit up on the other actors in the cast placed variously around the stage.) "Thank you." (The cast exits) "You also need to know that 17 is a very important number but I'm gonna remind you of that later. And by the way, the ends do justify the means, that's what means are for.
"Now it's 1921 and not a lot of people were thinking about electrons except the writers of comic books and the readers of comic books, one of whom was a kid from Indian Creek, Utah whose family had just moved to Rigby, Idaho to live on his uncle's potato farm. If there are any Brits in the house, they're gonna start shouting John Logie Baird at me but they're wrong, Baird didn't have it. Neither did Nipkow or Ernst Alexanderson and neither did Vladimir Zworykin. I know they didn't have it 'cause I knew these men and Zworykin worked for me. Nobody had it, nobody was close and lemme tell you, nobody cared that much 'cause at best it was gonna be considered a nifty parlor trick. Nobody had it except a 14 year old kid in Rigby, Idaho standing in a field of potatoes. He rode a three-disc plow, drawn by a mule, making three parallel lines in the earth at once. Then three more. Then three more and three more until he was done with his work. He stepped off the plow, looked back at the rows and rows of parallel lines, and that's when he realized the key to the most influential invention in history. So he did what any world class electrical engineer would do in that situation: he went to see his 9th grade science teacher."
All right, why did I just type all that? At this writing, I know not if the reviews of this play will be good or bad or what (and if they're any of them bad or what, those are the wrong ones, believe me) but what I want you to get from this one, to feel from this one, is the level of playwriting we're at here.
Read the speech again. Flows easy doesn't it? Seems casual, off the cuff, unpretentiously colloquial?
You don't even notice how much work it does. Yet it all registers. And that's why it's so bloody brilliant. Check it out:
It gives you pace and speed. For all that Sarnoff is a power broker, he's unapologetic about "gonna" (never "going to"), which appears four times, "'cause" (never because) which appears twice, or "lemme" (not "let me") so we know he cuts to the chase. He says "what the hell," so we know profanity is in his arsenal too, and he's just met us so he doesn't care who he offends—
—but he sure cares about something, because when he does that thing about the ends justifying the means, he's on the defensive, and nobody's even raised a hand of doubt yet. The speech never condescends to spell it out, never, ever, but clearly this man has done something he's not at peace with, and guess what, kids, that's the hook into why we listen to him, we now understand he's talking to us because he WANTS something for the effort, and if it isn't forgiveness, it just might be permission to forgive himself.
And there's a history lesson, but it sure doesn't come off like a lesson because he doesn't tell it, he argues it, in fact, he pre-empts argument, and names all these guys that most in the audience never heard of, nor does he tell us what they did, but the context defines it, and when he tells us that one of them worked for him, he's also telling us how much it pissed him off that the guys he knew weren't good enough.
And notice what happens when he discusses the guy who was good enough. Suddenly compressed English is gone. Now it's about perfect English and vivid imagery. It's not that Sarnoff has lost his natural diction, but rather he's taken you to another part of it. He doesn't admit anything here either, but as he meticulously, almost caringly, talks about that farm boy, he reveals another color: reverence. He will never say so, never not ever, but he loves Farnsworth, loves his genius, loves his drive, loves the idea that there's another being in his, Sarnoff's, corner of the universe as smart as he is, because there aren't that fucking many.
And did you catch the science lesson? Again, never spells it out—but who among you didn't understand that the parallel lines were the schematic for a TV screen?
All right, a shorter speech now. This is Farnsworth, the first time he addresses the audience—and the subject is Sarnoff.
"Shtetl is a Yiddish word that means ghetto and this shtetl was in the Uzlian province of, I think, Minsk, but I'm not sure, there's a lot of his history that's a little cloudy to me."
Now, what have we just learned about Farnsworth, through what he tells us about Sarnoff? First, that Farnsworth isn't Jewish (nobody has mentioned a religion yet) and second, that whatever Sarnoff may have just told us, Farnsworth doesn't think he's as plain speaking as all that. He's the offended party and he doesn't love his enemy, but does he say, "That bastard fucked me over and went through back doors to do it"? No, he says "there's a lot of his history that's a little cloudy to me." Which tells us that not only is he angry...
But that he's a man who holds his anger on a tight leash.
What this kind of evocative language and characterization do is create an environment so rich that your mind is always engaged with it. You're not only following the story, you're following and clocking and feeling the emotional undercurrent informing the story; and it's both as seemingly magical as television itself -- and yet, for a lucky critic who gets to study the script, as explicable if you go step by step to see how the magic gets done. And if ever a play was a textbook for theatrical magic, The Farnsworth Invention is it.
The cast is uniformly splendid, and fans of Sorkin's previous work will recognize the "feel" of a Sorkin ensemble, actors who understand the music of phrasing, who know where the emphasis goes, what the precise timing ought to be, who are comfortable speaking quickly and intelligently yet never so breathlessly that they fail to bring you along in the current. It starts of course with the contrast between Hank Azaria's gruff-voiced big game hunter and Jimmi Simpson's guilelessly confident explorer. As their respective wives, Nadia Bowers and Alexandra Wilson provide an equal contrast, the first a socialite who won't be underestimated, the second a quietly protective partner who knows she isn't. There are too many lovely cameos in the cast to single out, but one must, I suppose, pause to acknowledge that reliable giant bulldog Michael Mulheren, who can manage both physical intimidation and martini dry wit at the same time. And does so with an initially doubtful but ultimately supportive member of the Farnsworth contingent you come to love named Leslie Gorrell.
The play is directed on an epic canvas with quicksilver assurance by Des McAnuff—and the canvas is designed with sleek, streamlined efficiency by Klara Zieglerova.
There's more to say about this remarkable and I think instantly classic American masterwork, but I'll just leave you with this.
Come intermission at the performance I attended, the houselights came up and the lady in my life looked at me and said, "Were you crying?"
"Yep," said I. This was a big deal to say so blithely, because my first impulse is always to cover like crazy.
"Why?" she asked. Reasonably. The play hadn't gotten to its sad part yet.
"Because," I replied, "it's making me deliriously happy."
And if the audience there with me is any indication...I'm not remotely alone...