Given that at this moment I’m watching a total of two TV shows (two more than usual, and they are, quite psychotically, Mad Men and the Real Housewives of New Jersey), a play about the invention of television would seem to be the last thing to captivate me. Yet that is exactly what the current production of ‘The Farnsworth Invention’ manages to do at the Albany Civic Theater.
Masterfully directed by Aaron Holbritter and written with the deft, quick-worded brilliance of The Social Network’s Aaron Sorkin, it ostensibly sets out to document the creation of television, but manages to display layers of human drive, greed, hope, and innocence along the way. This is a mannered, thoughtfully-paced, and intricately-nuanced production, but its complexities play out in charmingly entertaining fashion, as much a testament to the talents of the director as to the strength of the cast.
At its center is the fictional interaction between media mogul David Sarnoff (Isaac Newberry) and Philo Farnsworth (Tom Templeton) as they compete to be the first to bring television to the world. Their relationship propels the show forward, and Newberry and Templeton ground the evening with an ever-evolving emotional arc between two very different men who came from similarly-barren pasts. As moving as they are, it is the ensemble as a whole that works together to flesh out the unexpectedly gripping drama as it unfolds. The supporting cast works wonders, creating around 60 characters between them, and somehow making every one distinct. Stand-outs include Ken Goldfarb and Joey Hunziker, who each get a few luminescent moments to shine.
There are a number of passages that soar, such as the exuberant explosion of the cast’s joy upon seeing the first glimpse of a moving picture on the small screen, or the comical juxtaposition of both witness teams in the lawsuit, and all of it serves to underscore the riveting dynamics between Newberry and Templeton.
In the hands of a less-skilled director or a less-restrained cast, the Farnsworth familial portion of the play might have verged on cloying – here, under the guidance of Holbritter, and the desperate yet contained grief conveyed by Templeton and Kyrie Ellison, it is an effective moment that sets up the final act. (One of the only minor complaints that can be made is the fault of Sorkin, who has yet to prove he can write a compelling, three-dimensional woman – whether that’s really his own flaw, or a product of the time period in which this subject took place is a debate that can rage elsewhere). That said, this production is one of the most subtle yet powerful stagings I’ve had the privilege of seeing in quite some time, and credit goes mainly to the cast and the director.
Ironically, or intentionally tellingly, what they manage to do – and what can only be done in live theater – is something that you can’t capture on television – that moment between actor and audience, when you inhabit the exact same time and space, breathe the same air, live in the same world – and feel as if you are actually there, sharing their heartbreak and happiness, striving and yearning along with them, aching in their grief.
It’s easy to root for the good guys, to be given a clear sense of who’s right and wrong and follow that simple path – but so much more rewarding and challenging, so deliciously tense, to be presented with complicated, fully-human characters complete with flaws, ambitions, hopes, and failings. We are given such a glorious dilemma here, and Newberry, as the first and final narrator, exemplifies this gorgeous ambivalence, shining light upon this human connection that brings us all together – not unlike television once did.