I enjoyed my high school history classes, and not just because my teacher would regularly let me nap during his lectures my senior year.
(This shouldn’t worry you, at least not about my grades or commitment—I still aced that class, earned a deeper appreciation for the forming of our nation, and developed a love of Ken Burns’ documentaries. If anything, reader, you should be worried that I liked to write exceptionally long essays.)
The subject provides a lens through which to view our society, either showing us how far we’ve come or causing us to reflect on why we’ve moved so little, for better or worse. Maybe that’s why playwright Aaron Sorkin chose this tale to explore. While The Farnsworth Invention is not entirely historically accurate, the archetypal David versus Goliath tale is always relevant. In fact, it seems especially relevant now when Sorkin’s Goliath is a powerful corporation, ready to prey on the humble Farnsworth.
The play follows Philo Farnsworth, touching briefly on his youth as a science prodigy in the farmlands of Utah but focusing mainly on his later pursuit to build an electronic television with the assistance of family members, a college dropout, and a refrigeration specialist. His greatest obstacle, at least in his own mind, is attaining and keeping funding for the project that has been deemed impossible. Little does he know that David Sarnoff, head of the Radio Corporation of America, has him on his radar. Sarnoff wants to take Farnsworth’s brainchild and gain a patent for it without having to give credit (or money) to Farnsworth himself, and he’s willing to use any means necessary to accomplish this goal.
The script moves quickly from time to time and place to place, highlighting key moments in Farnsworth’s story. This clipping pace, however, walks a fine line between keeping the audience at rapt attention and troubling them to keep track of which location the immediate scene is in. The speed also kept most of the cast juggling various roles throughout the show, which is perhaps why many of the auxiliary characters seemed nebulous. I wonder, due to the very brief time spent onstage, if some of them would benefit from being played as more exaggerated caricatures. It generally feels like more effort has been invested in the narrations directed at the audience than the telling of the story through the scenes, many of which feel underdeveloped. Overall, there isn’t a very strong chemistry among the ensemble, which makes it difficult to raise the stakes during the tensest moments of the show.
That being said, there are still numerous standout moments from the actors, and those narrative monologues are among them. Brian Cebrian as Sarnoff and Greg Dragas as Farnsworth both appear very comfortable speaking directly to the crowd, and are quite captivating to listen to. Cebrian is never fully sinister enough to seem the villain, but in the end, it may be just as fitting that he is never more evil than a true businessman. Dragas also does well balancing the odd personality of an untested genius with sincerity and warmth than makes Farnsworth likable. Also worthy of note was Keith Henaghan, who plays Crocker and brings a bulldoggish charm to the role— tough but tender, especially in the moment he hears Farnsworth playing the violin, and Abby Ortiz brings a grace and poise to Lizette that breathes life into one of the smaller roles in the show.
Fittingly, Ms. Ortiz has the chance to wear some of the loveliest dresses in the show, courtesy of costume designer Meg Murray. I also always love a three piece suit, and there were plenty of those to admire, though I did wish a few of the men’s pants had been hemmed a bit shorter—as a costumer, myself, too much of a trouser break is one of my pet peeves.
My only real gripe about how anyone was dressed, though, was with whoever let one of the stage crew members visibly move set pieces onstage in athletic wear. (I mean, the lights were low over there, but not that low.) All of the other set pieces are moved on by the actors themselves, which makes it rather jarring to suddenly see someone so out of place.
The set, designed by Bill Armstrong, is appropriately spartan and very adaptable for the quick scene changes. The projections on the rear wall are an excellent concept to accompany these changes, and help alleviate the audience’s burden of trying to remember the location of each scene as the script jumps along. Unfortunately they were often washed out to the point of near invisibility by the lights, and unless one is quick to view the old photographs and listed locations just before the start of the scene, we are unlikely to benefit from them later. I wouldn’t put Nina Martin’s lighting design at fault here—simply moving the projections out of the light would probably have been the best solution. The lighting design is otherwise simple but effective, and I liked the effect that her sharp transitions give the scenes, like an old film reel being switched on as the scene rolls to life.
While this is not Robert Pittman’s first time directing, as he has experience in both film and television, it is his first time directing for the theatre. You can see Pittman’s experience directing in general pays off in things like staging, which made good use of the set’s space, but his lack of experience in theatre comes up in other areas. The play lacks a strong narrative thread—that central clarity that can be distilled in the editing lab for a film, but which you have to instill in a theatrical performance. The story is still successfully told, to be sure, but some scenes—like those that didn’t contain the central characters—lack focus. While some shortcomings may have been addressed by a more experience director, it must be acknowledged that this production certainly wasn’t without its obstacles: a considerable amount of rehearsal time was lost during tech week due to snow, for example. Pittman is off to a reasonable start and still has plenty of room to grow; I’ll be anticipating his next work for the stage.
In spite of its flaws, I sincerely enjoyed The Farnsworth Invention. I hope things continue to smooth out onstage during the course of the run because the actors are telling an important story, one which asks us valid questions about today’s Davids and Goliaths. The play’s fast pace and documentarian style drew me in and kept my attention: no need for napping during this history lesson.
The Farnsworth Invention runs thru Feb 5 at the Little Theatre of Norfolk. Fri & Sat 8:00pm, Sun 2:30pm. Tix: $18 Reg; $15 Seniors/Military/Full-time Students; $9 Youth (17 and under). Group rates available. Call (757) 627-8551 or click here to reserve your seats now. And of course, let us know your thoughts about this battle for the boob tube in the comments!