"The Farnsworth Invention"

By: Aaron Sorkin
Produced by: Palo Alto Players
Featuring: Michael Sally, Dominic Falletti, Dee Baily, Tom Caldecott, Stephanie Crowley, Charles Evans, Jonathan Ferro, Gary Gerber, Jennifer Gregoire, Shuyl Jia, Mylissa Malley, Gary Mosher, Sophia Naylor, Vic Prosak and Frank Swaringen
Directed by: Dave Sikula
When: June 14-29, 2014; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California.
Tickets:$21-$42. Call 650-329-0891 or visit

Farnsworth Invention
Joyce Goldschmid / Palo Alto Players
Michael Sally as David Sarnoff,left, and Dominic Falletti as Philo T. Farnsworth in "The Farnsworth Invention," playing June 14-29, 2014, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.
Excellent cast breathes life into 'The Farnsworth Invention'
Rather unwieldy play by TV scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin
gets a well-done production at Palo Alto Players
June 19, 2014

There was a minor fuss as "The Farnsworth Invention" was being prepared to open at the Lucie Stern Theatre, staged by Palo Alto Players.

A couple of retired doctors, as reported in the Mercury News, objected to playwright Aaron Sorkin's telling of the story of Philo T. Farnsworth and his most famous invention: television.

Basically, they accused Sorkin of bending history. Sorkin responded, defending his play.

I yawned, thinking, who cares?

If I want history, I will at least go to Google and Wikipedia; maybe I will even read a book. There has been plenty written about Farnsworth, and about David Sarnoff, who is the other major character in this play.

When I go to the theater, I want drama. (Or, ya know, comedy, or music.)

And there is a good amount of drama in Sorkin's somewhat uneven play, regardless of whether he has every single historical fact just exactly right. And, truth is (OK, OK, I did some research), he does have the major details right.

And it's a great story: Farnsworth, farm kid genius from the Midwest, came up with the idea for, and produced, the first electronic television. Sarnoff, a tough kid from Belarus who built RCA and NBC from the ground up, fought Farnsworth in court for years, trying to own the device, saying his researcher, Vladimir Zworykin, had beaten Farnsworth to the patent.

This play is loosely focused on that fight, and kind of implies that if Sarnoff hadn't slowed Farnsworth's ability to make money from his invention of television, maybe Farnsworth wouldn't have died as a drunk with no money.

The truth of the real history is not so simple, but there is no denying that Sorkin has produced a partly compelling play that at its heart is tale of a conflict between creativity and business.

The play is more admiring of Sarnoff, who was born a Jew in Belarus, curses at a Cossack (in the play, anyway), fell into the telegraphy business by accident as a kid, and was maybe the first to see how radio would be a success if it went from being point-to-point to being point-to-masses.

It is a huge, unwieldy play, but it is worth seeing for the overall excellence of its cast and direction.

A key reason to go to this production of "The Farnsworth Invention" is to see Michael Sally as the adult Sarnoff. He prowls the stage like a powerful bear, frustrated and full of intelligence and sometimes bitter wisdom. He has high ideals and business sense, but isn't a monomaniac.

It is a rich, nuanced performance that very much brings Sarnoff — or, at least, the Sarnoff Sorkin imagines — to flesh on the stage.

Sally, as Sarnoff, directs and narrates the story, with some pity for Farnsworth, although that doesn't stop him from doing what he thinks he needs to do. "Did I steal television?" he asks. "I don't think so, but if I did, I stole it fair and square." It's business, driven by what he learned in Belarus: "I had to burn down his house before he burned down mine."

Dominic Falletti is Farnsworth, and I wonder if the real Philo was as animated as Falletti in this role. He plays the brilliant scientist, who went on to work on many other major electronic advances over the course of his career, as having a kind of youthful, arms-waving enthusiasm for his inventions.

When Falletti first comes out, as the young teen Philo, he speaks in a kind of high tenor. Doing a child voice? Nope. That's Falletti's voice, throughout.

Falletti had an especially nice touch with the physical bits, such as when Farnsworth gets drunk. Very nicely done. And he puts the broken man on the stage, when Farnsworth's boy is dying, and when his hopes are dying at the end of his life.

The play has 93 character roles. Lots of history, lots of players in that history. People in the lobby complained that it seemed like a TV documentary. Ben Brantley of the New York Times said in his review of the 2007 New York iteration, it seems like "an animated Wikipedia entry."

And there are times it seems like too many pieces, too loosely stitched.

Still, it kind of works, largely thanks to the 15 actors who play those 93 roles, and to director Dave Sikula, who does a fine job with blocking this massive tale. Despite the difficulty of knowing who was who from time to time, there were still standout performances, including Stephanie Crowley, who played several roles, including Lizette Sarnoff, reading her husband David the riot act.

Set designer Kuo-Hao Lo has created a kind of masterpiece with his huge, old-fashioned-TV-set backdrop, and some towers that might be radio antennae. Video projections on that old TV, by George Mauro, are integral to the play, showing what that first televised image in Farnsworth's lab might have looked like, and playing a great old recording of the real Philo on the 1950s TV show, "What's My Line?"

The screen is also used for the pre-show announcements, with Players Artistic Director Patrick Klein and Managing Director Diana Lynn Wiley in period costumes and 'dos, telling us what to do with our electronic devices and to look for emergency exits. It's cute, and drew applause.

Kudos to costume designer Shannon Maxham, especially for the ritzy clothes worn by Crowley and by Jennifer Gregoire as Pem Farnsworth, when they were in the money.

Sound design by Jeff Grafton definitely helped tell this story of early electronics. Lighting design by Selina Young was mostly helpful; there were some second-act blocking errors that left speaking roles in shadows occasionally, the kind of thing that was probably fixed before the next show.

Biggest tech problem on opening night was when a floor board levered up when Sally stepped on it. If it had been a joke, it might have smacked him in the face. As it was, Sally was lucky if he didn't sprain something. He just continued with his lines, solidly in character, and stomped the board back down into place. Fine actor.

Email John Orr at

farnsworth invention
Joyce Goldschmid / Palo Alto Players
Dominic Falletti, Mylissa Malley, Tom Caldecott, Gary Mosher, Stephanie Crowley, Jonathan Ferro and Gary Gerber, from left, in "The Farnsworth Invention," playing June 14-29, 2014, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Ferro was charming as Douglas Fairbanks in this scene.
Farnsworth Invention
Joyce Goldschmid / Palo Alto Players
Vic Prosak, Michael Sally, Tom Caldecott and Charles Evans, from left, in "The Farnsworth Invention," playing June 14-29, 2014, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.


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