PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Farnsworth Invention — How the Grinch Stole Television

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04 Dec 2007

The first of the strike-stopped new plays out of the chute, The Farnsworth Invention, popped out of the Music Box Dec. 3, with its "Lions for Lambs" battlelines well in place.

Aaron Sorkin's retelling of the taffy-pull over the infant television is the classic David and Goliath story, only here Goliath is named David — as in Sarnoff, the Russian immigrant who rose to the top of corporate America's alphabet soup (RCA, NBC, etc.). In the opposite corner, on the inconspicuous side, is the hayseed with a cowlick, Philo T. Farnsworth, who figured out as a ninth-grade farmboy on a tractor the mechanics of the 20th century's most significant creation. You have the man who invented television versus the man who knew what to do with it, and Sorkin asks you the audience to decide the paternity in his freefall history lesson, conducted by Evelyn Wood at about 90mph.

The contest, as set up, is more than a little inequitable, and that's seconded by the casting: Hank Azaria, in a spiffy pin-strike blue suit, plays Sarnoff with a shark-smile of pearly white and a voice of granulated gravel. Jimmi Simpson, sporting a baggy brown suit throughout the whole show, is Farnsworth to the bitter end, a socially crippled mental- genius unable to take care of himself (indeed, ripe for squashing) in the marketplace.

Simpson's previous Broadway history has been fleetingly agrarian: "I was doing a small farmhand role in The Rainmaker and understudying the younger brother role that David Aaron Baker played," he recalled. "I was there through the rehearsals and for a week of previews, then I got another job and left." With justification, he calls this his Broadway debut.

Azaria made his Broadway bow as the lavender Lancelot in Spamalot, but now he's wearing his theatrical frown and snarling. Does it bother him to play an unsympathetic character? "Absolutely not," he insisted. "I'll take engaging, as long as you can see his point. Yeah, he was a tough guy, but he was also fascinating. He was who he was."

Big and beefy Michael Mulheren is prominently among the multitude that swarms around these two characters. "I play 12 different roles," he said. "It's crazy. There are 150 characters, and Jimmi and Hank play two. And the 17 others of us play 148. We're all over the place backstage."

Each lead delivers biographical data on the other, occasionally quibbling and snipping over the facts just presented but covering decades of historical terrain in a sprint.

This storytelling technique is what persuaded Sorkin to reconfigure his screenplay on the subject into a play — theatre permits a poetic license where film tends to literalize. It's his first play since 1989's A Few Good Men, which he went West to cinematize, never to return till now — with a play on the medium he had dabbled in so prodigiously in the long meanwhile since ("Sports Night," "The West Wing," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip").

"I was just waiting to have an idea for 19 years" was his glib way of explaining his absence from the Main Stem. "I'm averaging one idea every 19 years. I'm going to try to pick up the pace in the second half of my life." He returned, full-cycle, to the house where A Few Good Men began his Broadway career. The Music Box wasn't his idea, though.

"Gerry Schoenfeld of The Shuberts said, 'He had a good time at the Music Box before. Let's put him back there.'" (By "good time," Schoenfeld meant 497 performances.)

The opening-night bash for The Farnsworth Invention was, mercifully, next door to the Music Box at the Marriott Marquis. Cold winds kept all but the most determined smokers (Sorkin among them) indoors at intermission, huddled in clumps in the lower lobby or sardine-stacked in the aisle. At both locations, there was a happy, upbeat buzz of a hit.

Among the huddled first-night masses were Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, Garrison Keillor, A Chorus Line's Joey Dudding, Byron Jennings and Caroline McCormick, Bob Saget and Troy Britton Johnson from The Drowsy Chaperone, Andrew Lippa (who composed 55 minutes of original incidental music for The Farnsworth Invention), Roger Rees, Christopher Spaulding of Curtains, Richard Kind, Jean Kennedy Smith, Peter Shaffer, Zoe Caldwell and the writers, star and choreographer of Jersey Boys (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, Daniel Reichard and Sergio Trujillo).

Steven Spielberg and his actress-wife, Kate Capshaw, didn't leave their aisle seats, preferring instead to chat with Angels in America author Tony Kushner and his partner, Entertainment Weekly editor-writer Mark Harris, in front of them. Save for "a minor investment in Spamalot," Spielberg has confined himself to the big pictures until now. With The Farnsworth Invention, he and Dodger Properties went halfzies on the show's $4-million budget (a decidedly sizable sum for a straight play). "This was a labor of love for Steven," said The Dodgers' Michael David. "He shared with us the love of the script."



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