What writer Aaron Sorkin did with the founding of Facebook for his Oscar-winning screenplay The Social Network, he does with similar flourishes in his play about the fathers of television, The Farnsworth Invention. Getting its Dallas debut in an exceptionally zippy production at Theatre Three, the play is an explosive dual bio-drama full of Sorkin's lightning-quick dialogue and scorching wit.
The playwright tips his hand in the title toward the man he thinks deserves the most credit for successfully assembling glass tubes, chemicals and electrons into the thing we know as television. That man was Philo T. Farnsworth, son of an Idaho potato farmer. At 14, Philo sketched plans for a means of transmitting moving pictures over the air and into a receiver for viewing. Smart enough to baffle his high school chem teacher with questions, Philo Farnsworth became a self-taught scientist who, in his early 20s, convinced a few dubious investors to fund his small lab in San Francisco to work on his invention.
At the same time on the East Coast, a brilliant Russian émigré named David Sarnoff had already founded the Radio Corporation of America and launched radio as America's first over-the-air mass medium. He, too, saw the potential of television and was throwing money at scientist Vladimir Zworykin, whose attempts at a mechanical television were failures.
The Farnsworth Invention
The Farnsworth Invention continues through March 17 at Theatre Three. Call 213-871-3300. Tuna's Greatest Hits continues through March 4 at Bank of America Theatre, Eisemann Center, Richardson. Call 972-744-4650.
Sarnoff had lofty ideas about future uses of television. "It's gonna end war," he says in the play, "by pointing a camera at it." (That's how media titans used to think, apparently: Not "How many more versions of Real Housewives can we fit on the schedule?" but how could humanity be better served by new technology?)
How one man invented television and another ended up filing (some would say "stealing") the patent for it is the core of The Farnsworth Invention. It sounds dry and complicated. But Sorkin, who wrote two TV series about TV shows, SportsNight and Studio 60, and is developing one about cable news, is a whiz at breaking down technical jargon and weaving explanations of cathode ray tubes and patent law through his central David and Goliath saga. He also keeps us guessing about whom to root for — the humble genius or the powerful visionary?
Director Jeffrey Schmidt has cast two fine local actors as his leads, both adept at conveying Sorkin's torrents of words with precision and fire. Jakie Cabe gets his teeth into the role of the feisty Sarnoff, who barks profanity and eats underlings for lunch. Hank Azaria played Sarnoff in the 2007 Broadway production, and Cabe, angularly handsome in his sharp suits and slicked-back shock of black hair, might remind you of him. Sarnoff is not a monster in this play, and Cabe doesn't play him as such. Sorkin's version of history may be more sympathetic to Farnsworth, but as you see the men's stories unfold, you understand why Sarnoff had to crush him.
The main characters step outside the action to tell each other's biographies and to narrate world-shaking events starting with the sinking of the Titanic and ending with the 1969 moon landing. Some of those sequences play better than others. Actor Alex Organ, portraying Philo Farnsworth, retells the 1929 stock market crash in a five-minute speech that dwells on mechanical failures that contributed to the financial disaster. It's a scene that would look better on film, with narration over quick cuts between exasperated ticker typists and traders on the floor of the Stock Exchange. At Theatre Three, the frantic energy of the moment dies when actors have to stoop and clear ribbons of tickertape off the set.
If Organ's performance seems showier than Cabe's, it's because Farnsworth's personal journey has a wider arc, going from teenage savant (played at that age by actor Ian Patrick Stack) to ambitious young inventor, frustrated engineer, grieving father and then broken-spirited alcoholic. Organ is a powerful and graceful actor. A graduate of Yale Drama School, he's been building a résumé of strong roles over the past few seasons at area companies including Shakespeare Dallas and Second Thought. At Theatre Three, he brings depth and intelligence to his performance as Farnsworth. He paces it toward a climactic, explosive faceoff with Sarnoff, a wholly imagined scene that helps neatly cap the end of the play. (Sorkin couldn't help himself: The characters admit that the meeting never happened in real life.)
Playing more than 60 characters over two hours, the cast of 16 stays in constant motion. Danielle Pickard has little time to paint the picture of Philo's modest wife, Pem, but she connects well with Organ, especially in the scene after the Farnsworths' loss of their child. Lydia Mackay has sassy hips as Sarnoff's wife, Lizette, and shows up in the second act as silent screen star Mary Pickford, who brings husband Douglas Fairbanks (Joel McDonald) to visit Farnsworth's lab.
Christopher Curtis impresses as the hick high school teacher. Adopting a Russian accent, he also plays scientist Zworykin. Adrian Churchill, Catherine DuBord, Clay Wheeler, Jerry Crow, Micah Figueroa, David Goodwin, Andrew Kasten, Aaron Roberts and Ian Ferguson flow seamlessly through many characters. Costumer Meredith Hinton has given everyone the right period look, from haircuts to footwear.
Bi-level scenery by Schmidt incorporates fuzzy video images. The floor bears the original Farnsworth test pattern, a flat geometric image that filled the small screen between telecasts. Yes, children, there once was a time when television took a rest when there was nothing on it worth watching.
Thirty years after their debuts in Greater Tuna, actor-writers Joe Sears and Jaston Williams are still tirelessly touring, having aged nicely into their older characters' stooped postures and slower walks. They've been performing their two-hander plays, co-written with and directed by Ed Howard, about Texas' "third smallest town" since Hector was a pup. Their latest, Tuna's Greatest Hits, stitches together some of the funniest scenes from all the Tunas. It's at the Eisemann one more weekend.
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Even if you've seen Greater Tuna and all its sequels, see this one, too. Sears and Williams, two of this state's greatest actors, never miss a lick. They're as hilarious as they ever were and the material, much of it about the moralizing hogwash and hypocrisy of small-minded bigots, is timelier than ever.
I first fell in love with Tuna's smut-snatching citizenry — Arles Struvie, Thurston Wheelis, Aunt Pearl Burris, Reverend Spikes, Vera Carp, Petey Fisk and the Bumiller family — when I saw Sears and Williams in the original Greater Tuna in Greenwich Village in 1982. If you had a Texas driver's license, you got in for $5, so I kept returning, taking as many Texans as I could find who needed some belly laughs and reminders of why we'd migrated to NYC after college.
New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow panned Greater Tuna back then, calling it an "insufferable evening of small-town chatter." Gussow died in 2005. Sears and Williams are still doing their shows, though, as they have for three decades, playing to big, appreciative crowds from here to yonder and back again.
Theater critics come and go. Tuna, Texas, will live forever.