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The fight over who pioneered the TV plays out in The Farnsworth Invention

Is it good planning or just good luck that the Alley Theatre programmed Aaron Sorkin's breathlessly entertaining television history pageant The Farnsworth Invention during the very week that TV historically switched its signal from analog to digital?

If you don't know — and Sorkin expertly lays it all out with the precision and speed of an electron beam scanning a cathode ray — Philo T. Farnsworth, one of television's founding fathers, was a 14-year-old Idaho farm boy who, in 1921, after plowing his family's farm, had an epiphany that images could be sent wirelessly using electricity, i.e., television. Farnsworth even drew a picture of his rudimentary "image dissector," which many years later would be used as evidence that he had been the first person to invent the picture tube.

The play's second protagonist, David Sarnoff, the ruthless but visionary head of Radio Corporation of America, foresaw the momentous changes that television could bring to the world. He wanted Farnsworth's invention because he realized it was the key to the future — and the key to future limitless profits. He wanted RCA to bring TV to the world, not some nobody like Farnsworth. Eventually, after a complicated, backbiting battle of wills and endless patent wars, RCA emerged triumphant, leaving Farnsworth in the forgotten dustbin of history.

Sorkin remedies the historic injustice with this lively pas de deux that showcases underdog Farnsworth's unwavering perseverance. But neither Farnsworth nor Sarnoff is perfect. The playwright doesn't spare Farnsworth's warts — depression and alcoholism — nor Sarnoff's spiky megalomania; he balances the tale by having each man narrate the other's story.

Sorkin is extremely deft in the telling, especially in the fast-paced first act, but that's no surprise, considering he's responsible for the hit TV series The West Wing and Sports Night, and the hugely successful movie A Few Good Men. Just don't believe the history he tells. It's mostly bunk (the evil Cossacks did not burn down Sarnoff's home; Farnsworth won the momentous court case), but it makes for exciting, overheated TV drama, anyway, like a History Channel special, sponsored by RCA.

Under David Cromer's cinematic direction, the entire ensemble cast is electrified (each actor plays multiple parts). Displaying optimism and drive, Brandon Hearnsberger (Farnsworth) has that head-in-the-clouds, visionary look of the born inventor/pioneer, while Jeffrey Bean (Sarnoff) creates fiery sparks with his captain-of-industry's rock-solid ego that takes no prisoners. The minimal physical production is downright pictorial, with mathematical formulae broadcast across the background, or, at one salient point in the drama, projected squarely upon Farnsworth. Invention is good, solid drama and mesmerizing theater, but lousy history. It still beats anything on TV.

 
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