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TimeLine's 'Farnsworth Invention' has more brains than heart
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

RCA President David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin) confront one another in Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention," a fact-based, theatrically enhanced drama about the birth of television running at TimeLine Theatre.

 

Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin) shares his early success with his wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman, left) and his initial backers played by Larry Baldacci, from left, Jamie Vann and Tom McElroy in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago-area debut of "The Farnsworth Invention."

 

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Published: 4/23/2010 12:00 AM

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With its first-rate production of Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention," TimeLine Theatre once again demonstrates it has more than enough talent to realize its ambitions.

For the second time in as many years, the mid-size company pulled off a theatrical coup, obtaining the rights to the Chicago-area premiere of a Broadway show that in the past would likely have been snagged by a larger theater.

But the success of 2009's stellar "History Boys" - the multi-Jeff Award winning production whose six-month, sold-out run made it the most successful show in TimeLine's history - proved just how potent this company is.

That said, "The Farnsworth Invention," Sorkin's screenplay turned stage drama about the origins of television, doesn't pack the same wallop as "The History Boys." The fault rests not with Nick Bowling's swift, shrewd direction, nor his dynamic cast, led by TimeLine artistic director PJ Powers and Rob Fagin. Rather it revolves around a play that has more brains than heart. The verbal fireworks - defined by rapid-fire Sorkin-speak dialogue uttered by hyper-articulate characters - don't make up for its emotional detachment.

The play explicitly details television's early technology, but fails to delve deeply into its main characters: inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, the genius who imagined the mechanics of television, and communications mogul David Sarnoff, the prescient corporate head who envisioned how significant television's impact would be.

"The Farnsworth Invention" is no docudrama. But while it's not entirely historically accurate, it is a highly entertaining, David-versus-Goliath tale about two seminal figures in the development of the most influential creation of the 20th century. (By way of reference, a television - the gadget one character describes as "a parlor trick for rich people" - now occupies space in 98 percent of American homes.)

Sorkin ("The West Wing," "Sports Night," "A Few Good Men") pits Farnsworth (the disarming Fagin), the farmer's son with floppy hair and rolled-up sleeves who toils away in his San Francisco lab, against Sarnoff (a coolly aggressive, gregariously acerbic Powers), president of RCA. From his Radio City headquarters in New York City, Sarnoff, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who wears pinstripe suits and slicks back his hair, is determined to fully exploit the new medium.

Polar opposites in demeanor, Farnsworth and Sarnoff are kindred spirits at heart, sharing a single-minded focus on the future and a determination to realize their vision. The two men take turns telling each other's story: cataloging successes, debunking myths, conveying harsh truths and pointing out failures, both technical and moral. The story plays out as a battle over who deserves the patent on television - Farnsworth with his shoestring budget and his inexperienced assistants, or Sarnoff and his well-funded, A-list team of engineers led by the Russian-born Vladimir Zworykin. Ultimately, the war concludes in a courtroom with a judge determining the victor.

The narrative unfolds in a series of quick-moving scenes involving men and women caught in the Farnsworth-Sarnoff orbit. The acting of the 16-member cast, who take on some 70 characters, reflects TimeLine's usual high standards, with Bill McGough earning kudos for his vivid character work.

Mike Tutaj's projections of significant and not-so-significant television moments from the last 60-plus years also deserve mention. (Note the contrasting images: TV's Huxtables set against the fall of the Berlin Wall and the juxtaposition of Edward R. Murrow with faith healers.) John Culbert's simple, suggestive set slides quickly into place to accommodate the insistent pace set by Bowling.

The director finds a way to inject emotion into a drama that doesn't readily embrace it. The thrill Farnsworth and his crew experience upon observing their first transmission is palpable. So too is the tension - more powerful for its restrained expression by the actors - that animates the 1929 stock market crash which opens Act Two.

These scenes and others demonstrate once again that TimeLine's time has come.

"The Farnsworth Invention"

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Location: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago, (773) 281-8463, ext. 24, or timelinetheatre.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sundays through June 13. Also 7:30 p.m. May 26, June 2 and 9

Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $25, $35

Parking: Nearby lots, limited street parking

Rating: For teens and older