By Richard Ades
As a writer, Aaron Sorkin has had much success.
On TV, The West Wing was a critically praised hit. Onstage and at the cinema, A Few Good Men was a triumph.
But Sorkin also has had some failures. The most obvious was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a much-anticipated series that didn’t outlast its first season.
Then there’s The Farnsworth Invention, originally written as a movie that never quite came to fruition. Sorkin then rewrote it as a play that opened on Broadway in late 2007 and closed three months later after receiving mixed reviews.
It’s probably unfair to label this reality-inspired drama a failure, but you can’t really call it a success. Yes, you do learn something about the invention of television, but you can’t take this history lesson too literally, as Sorkin bends the facts to suit his purposes. What’s worse, even after taking liberties with the truth, he still doesn’t manufacture enough drama to yield an absorbing story.
Director John Dranschak and a strong cast do what they can to sell the tale in Gallery Players’ production, but they fail to weave Sorkin’s straw into theatrical gold.
The play tells the life stories of David Sarnoff (Ian Short), an immigrant who becomes a top executive in America’s early broadcast industry, and Philo T. Farnsworth (Stefan Langer), an American genius who’s determined to invent television. From the beginning, it’s obvious the two are antagonistic toward each other, but it’s not until halfway through that we actually find out why.
Did I mention that the play lacks drama? Fortunately, it also has some strengths.
If you’re into science, you may learn some interesting tidbits about the challenges Farnsworth and others faced as they tried to send images through the air electronically. If you’re into broadcasting, you may learn something about the early days of radio and television.
And if you’re just generally into American history, circa the 1920s and ’30s, you’ll no doubt glean some new understanding of the era. For instance, did you know that pretty much everyone back then had a potty mouth? Or, at least, they do in Sorkin’s version of that time period.
Cursing or otherwise, the supporting cast does a decent job of portraying the people who played major and minor roles in the development of television. Particularly prominent is Robyn Rae Stype as Farnsworth’s loving wife, Pem. Their sturdy efforts, along with those of Short and Langer, help to keep us from tuning out entirely as the play follows its anemic dramatic arc.
One more problem with the play: One gets the feeling that Sorkin is going out of his way to put Sarnoff’s actions in the best possible light—even when he uses questionable means to get what he wants, and even when Farnsworth gets screwed over as a result.
But don’t worry too much about Farnsworth. He actually came out better in real life than he does here, both during and after his run-in with Sarnoff.
To sum up: good production, bad history, bad drama.
Gallery Players will present The Farnsworth Invention through May 17 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Thursday (May 14 only). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 for ages 60-plus ($13 JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.