December 8, 2007

Turned Off By "The Farnsworth Invention"

My husband K was ambivalent about The Farnsworth Invention even before we saw it. On the one hand, the show is about the rivalry over who invented television between Philo T. Farnsworth, a naive, self-educated scientific genius, and David Sarnoff, the shrewd media visionary who ran RCA and founded NBC, and K isn't crazy about watching actors pretend to be famous people. On the other hand, the show is by Aaron Sorkin, who is famous for having written the smart courtroom drama A Few Good Men, the smart movies "Malice" and "The American President" and the smart TV series "Sports Night" and "The West Wing" and K is crazy about smart people. As it turns out, the characters in The Farnsworth Invention aren't famous enough to be distracting and the actors playing them—Jimmi Simpson as Farnsworth and Hank Azaria as Sarnoff—are talented performers but Sorkin may be too smart for his, and the audience's, own good.

Sorkin clearly did a lot of research into the technology behind the creation of television and the intricacies of patent law and he's clearly proud of that because long stretches of the play's dialog sound as though pages of “Popular Science” magazine or "The Journal of Intellectual Property Law" somehow got mixed up with the script. I like learning new stuff but I go to the theater to be entertained as much, if not more, than to be educated. At least half of the action in The Farnsworth Invention is simply narrated by the two main characters as they talk about major events in one another’s lives and the few dramatic scenes that are supposed to show those turning points have far too little drama. In short, there's a whole lot of head in this show but not enough heart.

The man sitting next to me kept sneaking peeks at his watch. K and I were bored too. Watching the show reminded me of Democracy, another play about a complex subject (German politics in the post-war era) and written by a smart playwright (Michael Frayn) that came off, at least in the New York production, as more of a lecture than a drama. Sorkin tries to spice up his work by peppering his speeches with anachronistic asides to the audience and expletives that reminded me of those desperate stand-up comics, who, knowing that their jokes are falling flat, try to prop them up by throwing in a barrage of f-words. Plays about serious subjects can be engaging without that kind of gratuitous pandering. Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon proved that last season. And now, right across 45th Street, Tom Stoppard is proving it as he recounts 30 years of modern Czech history in the winning Rock 'n' Roll.

After The Farnsworth Invention ended, K and I walked over to 46th Street for dinner at Orso, the country Italian restaurant that is such a part of the theater scene that you don't even need to give them a specific time when you're making a reservation for a post-theater dinner but instead can just tell them which show you'll be coming from because they know how long each one runs and how long it should take you to walk from the theater. As usual, the cozy room was filled with people who had just seen various shows. The couple who came in right after us and who were seated at a nearby table had just come from The Farnsworth Invention too and, seeing our Playbills, stopped and chatted for a bit. Former New Yorkers who now live in Colorado, they said they come in at least once a year to see shows. Grateful that the stagehands' strike had ended just before this visit had been scheduled to begin, they'd seen Cyrano de Bergerac, which they enjoyed; August: Osage County, which they loved; and, of course, The Farnsworth Invention. They said they were ambivalent about it.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

You sounded about as thrilled as me by the production. Too much exposition if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your perfect description of Sorkin's Play. I too like some of his TV work. However, this was a complete bore. It was like my High School History class where the teacher did everything he could to make the boring lectures seem interesting. I go to the theatre to be entertained not given a history lesson. I am actually amazed it made it to Broadway.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Steve, it's always good to hear from you. And Richard, welcome to Broadway & Me and many thanks for taking the time to comment. I wish this play had worked because I actually think the subject matter and the themes--who gets credit for an invention, the tensions between artistry and ambition--are fascinating and I was hoping for something closer to Amadeus than to an episode of Bill Nye, the Science Guy.