Theater Review: "The Farnsworth Invention"

Lakewood Playhouse and Director John Munn take on Sorkin

By Joe Izenman on March 6, 2012

I've been following the work of Aaron Sorkin since the days of the short-lived TV show Sports Night. I've observed that there are a few things Sorkin clearly loves more than anything else: space travel, talking while walking, stealing his own lines and Philo T. Farnsworth.

I've also known John Munn for more than a few years, and there's not much he loves more than Aaron Sorkin. This is how we come to have Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention at Lakewood Playhouse, directed by Munn himself.

Philo Farnsworth - "Phil" to his friends and family - invented the television. Sort of. That is, he was the first scientist to successfully transmit and reconstruct an image over the air. If you haven't heard of him, the play would have you believe that it's largely because he lost a prolonged legal battle with RCA and did not become a multi-millionaire as owner of the patents used in commercial television.

This tale, or a rough approximation thereof, is told by two narrators: Farnsworth himself, a young, largely self-educated scientific prodigy (played by Niclas Olson); and David Sarnoff, eventual president of RCA and founder of NBC (played by Gabriel McClelland).

Both are the epitome of the unreliable narrator. Each tells portions of their own story, and gives their perspective on certain segments of the other's. Both talk of events that neither was present for. Don't come into The Farnsworth Invention looking for truth. Like in his recent screenplay for The Social Network, Sorkin uses devices of memory and hearsay to circumvent the need for total factual accuracy.

It seems like a straightforward David-and-Goliath story, but Olson and McClelland bring to life characters that are far from one-dimensional. Ostensible-hero Farnsworth struggles with alcoholism, presented as a possible trigger for his patent struggles. Corporate-"villain" Sarnoff battles against the ubiquitous greed of broadcasters and advertisers, whom he sees as diluting the purity of radio as a source of unbiased information. Both suffer tragedy on an intensely personal level.

The two storytellers never meet in the "real life" of the play, but instead interact in the meta-story, commenting on each other's narratives, as though watching each other's memories in a theatrical afterlife.

With something like 70 speaking roles spread amongst 22 actors, it is easy to lose track of who is exactly whom, as the action jumps from moment to moment and place to place. But the two leads weave deftly through a variety of stagings and vignettes, tying together what is ultimately a very human tale of struggle, drive and invention.

That is, struggle, drive, invention and lines stolen from old Sports Night episodes.

[Lakewood Playhouse, The Farnsworth Invention, through March 25, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $17-$23, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, 253.588.0042]