The Farnsworth Invention
West Wing creator Sorkin packs an enormous amount of information into his 2007 play about the creation of television, receiving its Chicago debut. We learn about the science of cathode ray tubes and the business machinations that made RCA’s David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) radio’s kingpin. At its best, The Farnsworth Invention has the panoramic sweep of a hefty nonfiction tome by James B. Stewart or Robert Caro, synthesizing reams of technical detail while keeping a tight focus on the larger-than-life figures battling at its center, Sarnoff and visionary engineer Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin).
The play is less successful at conveying the larger significance of its central struggle. At times, Sorkin seems to intend a statement about the place of technology in American life with allusions to grand historical events: the sinking of the Titanic, the 1929 Wall Street crash, the Apollo moon shot. But much of this material strains for effect, introducing tangential incidents without much payoff, while a final imagined confrontation between Farnsworth and Sarnoff proves surprisingly diffuse.
While Sorkin’s script has its problems, TimeLine’s production is bracing throughout. Recalling his succcess with last year’s triumphant History Boys, Bowling handily orchestrates the play’s 70-odd characters. Laboratories and boardrooms burst in and out of the small space’s two entrances, and key moments, such as the first demonstration of Farnsworth’s pioneering technology, offer a genuine thrill. Powers dominates as the gruff, driven Sarnoff; he captures precisely the mix of steely authority and insecurity roiling within this Russian refugee-turned-mogul. For his part, Fagin captures Farnsworth’s dreamy brilliance and fatal naiveté, his family and the larger world no match for the fascination of his lab.