Full STE(A)M Ahead: “The Farnsworth Invention”

Photo by Jake Scaltreto

Photo by Jake Scaltreto

Presented by Flat Earth Theatre
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz

June 12 – 27, 2015
Arsenal Center for the Arts
Watertown, MA
Flat Earth on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

(Watertown, MA) It would be awesome for the good people at Epic Rap Battles of History to pit Philo Farnsworth against David Sarnoff. According to The Farnsworth Invention, these boys reached Telsa/Edison levels of rivalry. That would make for some great entertainment.

Sorkin’s play is an inaccurate account of the race to invent television. It is told via dual narration between David Sarnoff (Michael Fisher) and Philo Farnsworth (Chris Larson). As each man’s life is explained to the audience, we learn important historical facts about their discovery process as well as personal insights. Sarnoff is a stoic dick with classical tastes and standards. Philo Farnsworth is a happy-go-lucky genius with nervous tendencies. The cast’s ensemble play multiple characters, frequently in the same scene, who directly influence the grand discovery. This production is performed in the round, with minimal props and set pieces, and stark lighting.  

As the dramaturgy notes by David N. Rogers will tell you, many of the credits for inventing TV legally go to Farnsworth. If the patenting system were different, if Farnsworth hadn’t been an all around genius, it is probable that Sarnoff/RCA would have won their legal battles and any appeals for the television. Sorkin’s point is that even if the events depicted aren’t factual, the human experience portrayed within is.

Unfortunately, Sorkin is as good at creating likeability in his characters as Voldemort is at giving hugs. We know what the characters are doing and why but not how they feel about it… With one exception: the proposal scene between Philo and Pem (Katharine Daly) is very sweet. It’s the most endearing moment of the show that is provided by Sorkin on purpose. We get to see some rare personality and vulnerability from Farsworth. Pem gets to be funny. These characters express their humanity and we finally like them for it. Sorkin doesn’t give us another moment like this. He doesn’t give us reasons to want to remember his characters, to root for them. Fortunately for him, and for us, Flat Earth’s cast does this on their own merits.

The cast delivers a fact-paced, well-knit, cosy production with lots of laughs and appropriate number of frowns. Their performances came from a place of joy. Fisher and Larson have great chemistry as rivals. Dale J Young (Bill Crocker, etc) switched characters on a dime with unprecedented clarity. These bonuses made up for the humanity Sorkin neglected to include in his writing.

The lady characters in this play could very easily be replaced with sexy lamps with a cigarette glued on. Try harder, Sorkin.

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