Everyone watches television, but hardly anyone can tell you who invented it. Lightbulb? Edison. Telephone? Bell. TV? Huh?
You'll know a lot more after you see The Farnsworth Invention, a play by Aaron Sorkin getting its Dallas debut at Theatre Three. Sorkin, who won an Oscar for The Social Network, about the battle over the creation of Facebook, finds similar conflicts in the story of Philo T. Farnsworth, the Idaho farm boy who made the first electronic contraption that could transmit moving images over the airwaves. How he lost the patent for his invention and ended up broke and alcoholic is the little-known chapter of the history of everyone's best friend, television.
The Goliath to Farnsworth's David in the play is RCA radio network founder David Sarnoff, a titan of American broadcasting. In the 1930s, Sarnoff saw a huge future in television but had invested in the wrong scientist, Vladimir Zworykin, who was trying to make a mechanical TV full of whirring parts. Many around Sarnoff dismissed the idea of television as frivolous or impossible, something consumers wouldn't know what to do with. "Where are they going to put it?" someone asks Sarnoff in the play. "Where they put their radio," Sarnoff snaps back.
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What sounds like a dry review of telecommunications history becomes an exciting piece of live theater, thanks to Sorkin's way with words. Letting Farnsworth and Sarnoff tell each other's stories makes both characters sympathetic. Watching the play unfold, with its race to see who'll own the valuable patent for television, you'll keep switching your loyalties. Neither man is 100 percent hero or villain. Flawed characters make the best drama.
Directed by Jeffrey Schmidt, who also designed the multimedia scenery (that weird geometry on the floor is the original Farnsworth test pattern), the Theatre Three cast is first-rate, particularly lead actors Jakie Cabe as Sarnoff and Alex Organ as Farnsworth. They make music of Sorkin's long speeches -- Organ gets to retell the 1929 Stock Market crash in a five-minute monologue that explains how primitive technology probably caused the loss of many fortunes -- and their well-paced performances build the action to an explosive confrontation between the characters at the end. It's a great collision of parallel biographies, but through his characters. Sorkin admits it never happened in real life. The playwright just couldn't help himself.
The Farnsworth Invention continues through March 17 at Theatre Three, 3300 Routh Street (in the Quadrangle). For tickets, 214-871-3300.