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

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.

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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."

As you might reasonably suspect from a big-screen visionary, Spielberg admitted that he had a primal connection to the story. "I had my mother, my father and television growing up," he succinctly summed up. "Also I knew a lot about the real story before I read Aaron's script because my father at one time actually worked for 'General' Sarnoff."

Currently, Kushner is putting the finishing touches on a new play which is set to world-premiere at the Guthrie in Minneapolis in the spring of 2009. Its title is quite a mouthful: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. No kidding, but at least, as Kushner quickly noted, "it's shorter than The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade." Yes, there is that. "All that came down to Marat/Sade, so mine will probably be called The Intelligent Homosexual."

Harris also has a new work about to become public: "Pictures at the Revolution," which Penguin will put in bookstores "around Valentine's Day." The title refers to the five Oscar contenders for Best Picture of 1967 — "Bonnie and Clyde," "Doctor Doolittle," " The Graduate," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "In the Heat of the Night" — a wildly eclectic mix which, contends Harris, demonstrates what a crucial crossroads movies were at. He was four at the time. "Now" — after the research, he said — "I feel like I'm 40."

The Oscar-winning Best Director of 1967 — Mike Nichols (for "The Graduate") — spent a lot of pre-show time seemingly waiting for a no-show (presumably that blonde who is always on his arm). Forty years after his Oscar win, Nichols is still the filmmaker. His latest comes out Christmas Day — "Charlie Wilson's War," written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Oscar winners all.

"Charlie Wilson's War" was Azaria's way of entry into The Farnsworth Invention. He met Sorkin doing a reading of the screenplay, and the writer wound up pitching him the play instead of the movie. Arazia checked out Farnsworth during its world-premiere run at the La Jolla Playhouse, with Stephen Lang playing Sarnoff to Simpson's Farnsworth.

Des McAnuff, who directed that production and this one, seems made to order for the material. Exhibit A: the way he speed-read the life story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons (a.k.a. Jersey Boys). "Aaron asked me to direct it," McAnuff admitted. "We didn't know each other, but he was kind enough to send me the play to see if I wanted to direct it. I jumped at it."

In addition to the speed of the narrative, The Farnsworth Invention appears to be using the same Jersey Boys set, with its split-level wrought-iron grating and its heavily used spiral staircase. "It's the same designer [ Klara Ziegerova]," he offered, "but the set is actually based on Phil Farnsworth's lab, so that center of the set with those glass panels that come and go — that's pretty much an exact replica of his lab on Green Street in San Francisco."

Yes, of course, he admitted, the strike that prevented the show from opening when it was scheduled was a bit of a stumbling block, momentum-wise, but it was surmountable. "It's a great relief. It was a long opening period. We've been opening about a month. But the cast came back after the strike and hit the ground running. They got back to top form, almost instantly. I am extremely proud of all of them. This was not an easy arrival."

Now he can get back to his regular duties as co-artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, where he may be cooking up some productions for Broadway. "I'm not now, but it's certainly not out of the question. Right now I'm just concentrating on there." And then there's the movie version, when and if, of The Farnsworth Invention. "I don't think there has been any discussion. I'd love to do another movie [the two he has done you'd hardly suspect came from the same director: Balzac's "Cousin Bette" and "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle"]. I hope I'll get a shot."

With Spielberg's oar already in so prominently, would he direct? "We'll see," said Sorkin mysteriously. "But it will definitely be a DreamWorks film." So will his next film — "if the Writers' Guild Strike gets settled in time. I'm in the middle of writing a script for a movie that's supposed to start shooting the end of March, about the trial of The Chicago Seven."

Television, where he has made his creative home for almost two decades, inevitably triggered this play — but not necessarily in the way you might think: "I think the first thing that came to me in writing the story was when I had learned that this kid was plowing the fields, and he looked back, and there were rows and rows of lines, and he got the idea for television. I think this is incredible! Then, I wanted to find out what was it about the rows and rows of lines that gave him that idea. I always needed to find out one more thing."

And a play was born — one he hopes has easy accessibility. "My wish is to get people to think that this was a lesson they needed to learn. I'm hoping that's the case. It's a fun story that people don't know. They'll have a good time watching. They shouldn't be afraid of the science. I don't know anything about science. You know what? I know how to make a television show, but I've never known what happens when I turn my TV on and there's a picture there."

The cast of <i>The Farnsworth Invention</i> takes its opening night bows.
The cast of The Farnsworth Invention takes its opening night bows. (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)