Entertainment » Theatre

The Farnsworth Invention

by Kilian Melloy
Sunday Jun 14, 2015
'The Farnsworth Invention' continues through June 27 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown
'The Farnsworth Invention' continues through June 27 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown  

History has forgotten, then recalled, any number of claims and counter-claims about rival inventors of technical marvels. Who deserves credit for inventing calculus -- Leibnitz, or Newton? (They seem to have created calculus independent from one another.) Whose approach to electrical power was better? Edison's, or Tesla's? Who should properly be considered the inventor of the telegraph? Samuel Morse? Or David Alter? And what about the telephone? We credit Alexander Graham Bell, but there's a whole slew of others whom history now recognizes as having made major contributions toward the technology.

Once technology makes a new application of science conceivable, any number of bright, inquisitive individuals are bound to start looking into the specifics, seeking to bring an idea out of the realm of the theoretical and into everyday life. There are plenty of incentives to do so -- money, status, the joy of solving a string of technical problems to arrive at a practical end result.

So it was with television. Once radio was more or less commonplace, the idea of transmitting visual information in much the same manner as auditory information became the next great puzzle. Aaron Sorkin's play "The Farnsworth Invention" semi-fictionalizes the story of a technically brilliant man, Philo Farnsworth (Chris Larson), whose life became entwined with that of another brilliant individual, the visionary (and somewhat pugnacious) businessman David Sarnoff (Michael Fisher).

Both men were visionaries. Farnsworth, at age 14, had a flash of insight that made television possible; even in 1914, when the story begins, some of the world's greatest electrical engineering minds are working on the problem. Farnsworth is a farm kid who, ploughing a field one day, looks at parallel rows of furrows in a field and realizes that television will only work if images are created in lines -- lines that are formed on the surface of a glass screen at fantastic speed, so quickly that the human brain registers them as a single image, and a moving image at that.

Sarnoff was also an early bloomer. At the age of ten, as he and his entire Jewish neighborhood were being terrorized by the Russian military, he told off an officer to his face. The military torched his family's home in retribution, and Sarnoff ended up migrating to New York with his parents, where he quickly insinuated himself into the fabric of American life and fell in love with the idea of radio. He, too, had a vision: Of mass media, of a means by which a single voice could literally speak to millions of listeners simultaneously. Such an invention could ennoble and educate the masses, and dispel veils of ignorance and untruth, liberating the world as never before. But if radio was good, wouldn't television be better?

"The Farnsworth Invention" is historical drama and character study; it's comedic and also tragic; what it doesn't do is pretend not to know how it all turned out. Sorkin allows Farnsworth and Sarnoff to address the audience directly, each recounting the other's story, and each having to explain and defend himself against the other's stinging, and sometimes too-true, observations. Where Farnsworth is more interested in matters of pure science (though he does also admit that getting rich off his work would be nice), Sarnoff is more practical and gradually compromises away his grand, idealistic visions. (He starts off appalled that radio stations are shilling commercial products on the air for a fee; if only Sarnoff could see us now, with Fox News and shopping channels.)

By the end, the grand prize turns out to be a matter of who gets credit for all the work that's gone into a powerful new means of communication. Corporate espionage, patent law, engineering's technical patois... it all comes together to create a story that feels grounded and factual, but which crackles juicily with drama and conflict. Sorkin has created a work of theater that's articulate and fast-moving, and he doesn't apologize for the way he changes history here and there in the name of artistic artifice.

Director Sarah Gazdowicz keeps the production light and nimble. Everyone in the cast except for Larson and Fisher play multiple roles; characters might enter and exit the action with a gesture as simple as an actor pulling on a different jacket (and an accent to go with it). As Farnsworth, Larson is pure electricity -- the kind of brilliant creator that popular myth embraces, a little scattered, and rather childlike, an innocent wandering among the constellations of possibilities only he can see in a firmament of equations and scientific principles. Farnsworth operates in a different way, and on a different plane, than the rest of the world.

Fisher's Sarnoff is a man caught between his deep sense of integrity and ethics and his overriding need to win -- to, as he puts it at one point, burn down the houses of others before they can set the torch to his own home. He brings a solidness to the production that serves as a foundation for the play's emotional impact, as well as its playful mashup of historical faithfulness and deliberate departures. The two create the sort of tension that propels theater past amusement and into true invigoration. There are moments when the air seems to tingle with the charge their friction generates.

The others in the cast -- Matt Arnold, Katherine Daly, Robin Gabrielli, Andy Hicks, Justus Perry, Korinne T. Ritchey, Noah Simes, Sophie Sinclair, and Dale J. Young -- are just as brisk and intelligently rendered. So are the design elements: Rather than handling actual props, the cast carry small chalkboards around, which have chalk illustrations of, say, a radio, or a specially made glass tube. (Other illustrations on larger chalk boards set the scene at the Farnsworth potato farm, or map out the legal and corporate connections between companies involved in the early 20th century's communications monopoly.) The drawings, done by set designer Rebecca Lehrhoff, are as meticulously rendered as the play itself.

Lehrhoff also incorporates some nifty physics references in her set design. Broken lines running across the floor, not quite parallel, keep our minds on Farnsworth's idea of images constructed from rows of glowing electrons, while also suggesting rays of signal transmitted through the air; overhead, a flurry of lightbulbs arrayed at differing heights suggest both the particle nature and the wavelike behavior of electrons and photons.

"Sciency" plays can also be deeply humanistic and emotionally gripping; the proof is in the pudding. Flat Earth Theatre has outdone itself with this production, which is as memorable and affecting as it is smart.


"The Farnsworth Invention" continues at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown through June 27. For tickets and more information please visit https://www.flatearththeatre.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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