‘The Farnsworth Invention’ @ Albany Civic Theater, 5/5/12

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ALBANY — Aaron Sorkin earned his claim to fame with quick and punchy dramas such as “A Few Good Men” and “The West Wing.”

The Albany Civic Theater’s production of Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention,” which opened Friday night, nails his trademark speed with a gripping and satisfying tale of two self-made men whose powerful intellects set them on a collision course.

Philo Farnsworth, a precocious self-taught inventor in Utah, came up with the idea of transmitting live images over the air in real time — while still a teen. Yes, the play doesn’t stint on using correct terminology — electrons and dissector tubes, for example — but his invention is repeated enough that all audience members should get a basic understanding of the science as well as its importance.

David Sarnoff, meanwhile, was an immigrant who taught himself English, started as an office boy at Commercial Cable Company and later led RCA and NBC, because he was able to pursue the idea that radio transmissions (and, later, television) could be used to communicate not from just one person to another, but from one person to a mass audience.

Part of the fiction of the play is that Farnsworth and Sarnoff, who never met in real life, trade off duties of telling each other’s stories — and they often argue about the tales. The drama at the center of their lives is not just the pursuit to create a workable television, but also a patent lawsuit to determine who gets the credit — and the financial reward — for inventing television.

Isaac Newberry as Sarnoff stands out for his strong and convincing performance as a smart and charming, though sometimes smug, executive. He is well matched with Tom Templeton as Farnsworth, who captures the manic joy of brilliance set loose on a quest of discovery.

Director Aaron Holbritter deserves much of the credit for this production, for getting his cast of 17 (most playing multiple players) to maintain the play’s demanding pace. Also of note is his sound design, with music and effects that enlarge the space and intensify the drama.

Among the ensemble, Ken Goldfarb (as Zworykin and a radio announcer in particular), Briavel Schultz (as Betty) and Adam M. Coons (Crocker) stand out for being consistently engaging.

One of the big criticisms of the play (it ran on Broadway in 2007) was how much Sorkin reworked the facts. Spoiler alert: Perhaps the biggest reworking is that Farnsworth lost the patent dispute and died penniless, drunk and obscure; whereas in real life, he won and RCA had to pay him royalties.

Is the art worth such sacrifices of truth? The Albany Civic Theater’s production seems to be a resounding yes; however, an uneasiness lingers in the irony that an inability to work with the truth comes from a writer whose most famous line, from “A Few Good Men,” is: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Perhaps Sorkin was talking to himself?

Theater review
“The Farnsworth Invention”

When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Continues: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; through May 20
Where: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany
Length: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $15
Info: 518-462-1297; http://www.albanycivictheater.org


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