March 1st, 2008


Talk Theatre

We went to see The Farnsworth Invention Thursday night.

(Parenthetical note: We get TDF (Theatre Development Fund) tickets for most things, for artists and students (you have to apply and prove you're one or the other), cheap, cheap, cheap so there won't be empty seats, sometimes you're sitting among the lights, sometimes you're practically out the side door, sometimes it's a good seat. Who cares? It's the theatre, and we loves theatre. If you live in NYC and love theatre too, go to their website and check it out.)

Anyway. The Farnsworth Invention. It's about the invention of television, it's by Alan Sorkin (who wrote West Wing). Any description of it is going to sound about as dramatic as watching the grass grow. Farm-boy genius comes up with a way of sending moving pictures through the air electronically, can't solve the last little technical problem involved, spends years scraping up funds for his lab, making prototypes that don't quite work while radio booms and RCA and NBC are founded. Meanwhile, the President of RCA and NBC, a Russian Jewish immigrant of high ideals and even higher ambitions, is lavishly funding another inventor, whose efforts to do the same thing are similarly stalled. Sokolov sends his inventor to San Francisco, where he steals Philo T. Farnsworth's secrets and comes home to succeed. There's a huge patent fight, which Farnsworth loses, after which he wanders off, never invents anything again, and dies 30 years later in obscurity and poverty.

Bummer, right? B-o-r-i-n-g, right?

Not even a little bit.

This play is about a lot of things, and I'd have to read it to get them all. But the most obvious thing it's about is language and communication. David Sokolov (the President of RCA) narrates Philo's story; Philo narrates David's. The way they tell those stories reveals as much about the teller as it does about the subject. These are words that matter, deployed by people who know love them. I don't know what the actual Sokolov was really like, but Sorkin's Sokolov is an idealist who wants radio (and then TV) to inform, to teach, to send music to people who had never heard an orchestra before. Later, he falls to the lure of the almighty marketing dollar, but at the beginning at least, he really believes that radio will make democracy better, even end war, because it will give people facts, without fear, without favor, without commercial interruption.

And Sorkin writes about all this without a trace of irony. Humor, yes, but no irony. It's done straight. I liked that, too.

The Farnsworth Invention is a profoundly theatrical show, with a two-tiered set and lots of actors playing 3-5 parts each and very beautiful early 20th C. costumes. There was a bronze velvet panne dress with a dropped waist and handkerchief hem and a little tab below the waist with a sparkly button on it that would look glorious on Ellen. I fell for a 1912 purple ensemble, myself, and any of the shoes. Because of the current New York Crud, there was a great cascade of understudies flowing from the illness of the guy playing Philo T. Farnsworth. But everyone was wonderful.

In short, (except for the acting) it was the anti-There Will Be Blood. I loved it unreservedly.