Two people arguing over electrons, cathode rays and how much light it takes to transport a moving image across the country may not sound like a riveting evening to most people -- but they'd be pretty much wrong.
For its final show of the 2008-2009 season, the Alley Theatre is putting on The Farnsworth Invention by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) which is both surprisingly funny and incredibly sad in turns as it tells us the story of the early battles for a workable TV set.
Jeffrey Bean shines as David Sarnoff, the Jewish immigrant from Russia who went on to become the head of NBC during its infancy and for years thereafter. His counterpart is Philo T. Farnswoth, played by Brandon Hearnsberger who, when he was just 15 years old in 1921, drew a picture for his high-school science teacher of a diagram for an electronic television system.
Sorkin has Sarnoff narrate Farnsworth's story and Farnsworth tell Sarnoff's. With frequent use of a rotating stage, carefully directed lighting to make sure the audience is looking at the right person at the right time and a large cast of characters, several of whom are juggling multiple parts, director David Croner has done an impressive job of making the events of the play both clear and engaging.
A special shout-out should go to Alley projection designer Clint Allen, whose lighted diagrams of the insides of a TV, and a car that's stopped and then is started again, go a long way in delighting the audiences and driving home how exciting new technology can be -- as well as the adventurers who take it on.
The Alley also has set up some "extras" on certain nights.
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On Tuesday, June 16, before the show there will be "Pages & Stages," a partnering effort with the Houston Public Library and Brazos Bookstore. Bring along a copy of The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television by Daniel Stashower, available at the downtown library, and discuss the book along with the stage play.
Following the performance, cast members will return to the stage in a "TalkBack" session to answer questions.
The Farnsworth Invention runs through June 28 on the Hubbard Stage at the Alley.
Update: SPOILER ALERT!! The first comment on this item contains a spoiler; if you don't want to know, don't look.