Review "Farnsworth Invention": From Potato Fields to Couch Potatoes!

TimeLine Theatre presents


At 615 W. Wellington
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Nick Bowling

Thru July 24th  
Buy Tickets

Running time:  Two hours and twenty minutes includes a ten minute intermission.

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

“Where is someone going to put a television in their house?”  Even before the punch line, that question from the play is funny.  In 2010, with the benefit of vision from a distance, the obvious answer is living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and everywhere.  TimeLine Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of FARNSWORTH INVENTION, Aaron Sorkin’s depiction of the birth of the television age. In Utah in the 1920’s, Philo Farnsworth looks at plowed lines of a potato field and imagines the electronic transmission of moving pictures.  Across the country, David Sarnoff’s career morphs from errand boy to telegraph operator to RCA president to NBC founder.  With limited grant money, Farnsworth and his small team of untrained family and misfits put in years to actualize his vision.  With the backing of Westinghouse and AT&T powerhouses, Sarnoff bankrolls labs of scientists to invent television…first… no matter what!    Grassroots vs. Industrial Strength.  Electronic vs. Mechanical.   Farnsworth vs. Sarnoff.  With tele-vision, these guys knew the global impact this entertainment module would have on commerce.   FARNSWORTH INVENTION is the TV guide to the painful birthing process of generations of boob tube lovers.  

FARNSWORTH INVENTION has over seventy characters played by sixteen actors.  In the lead, TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers (David Sarnoff) is the primary narrator of the story.  On stage throughout the show, Powers is pure ‘it’s just business’ unemotional ruthless.  Perched from the balcony watching the action, Powers’ duality is imagined as shrewd businessman in play… pretend and real.  Rob Fagin (Farnsworth) is the young obsessed scientist.  In rapid dialogue exchanges, a Sorkin trademark, Fagin stammers over his discourse.  Intentional or not, the effect is endearing in getting the audience to root for the drunk potato farmer to triumph over the media mogul.  From silhouettes to celebrities, the talented cast drops accents, changes suit coats, dons glasses to create the illusion of multiple people.  In fact, the curtain call seems sparse in comparison to the play’s frenzied, crowded scenes. 

Under the direction of Nick Bowling, the entire ensemble rapidly rolls in and out scenery and characters.  Bowling orchestrates the audience’s plunge into the time period with disaster glimpses at the Titanic and stock market crash. The first act is MTV sensational with edited quick scenes to highlight drama. The second act goes PBS documentary unchecked as Sorkin’s script loses edginess and scenes gain preachy discourse.  There is a longing for a station identification break.  John Culbert (scenic designer) and Mike Tutaj (projections designer) have teamed up on the visual images of early TV. Culbert’s scenery framework has opaque plastic windows.  When Tutaj projects his salute to early television with clips from various shows, the effect is authentically unfocused for the antenna pioneer years.

 FARNSWORTH INVENTION rewinds you to television’s beginnings to channel your imagination to “what’s next?”



Returning to a Lakeview staple since 1994, we dine at Erwin, 2925 N. Halsted.  Erwin and Cathy Drechsler have established a tradition of unassuming gourmet cuisine served up in a pleasant atmosphere.  The server is super attentive and knowledgeable… and not just about the wine! When we say we’re going to TimeLine Theatre for a 7:30 show, she suggests an earlier exit time because TimeLine has general seating.  We agree!  Bill orders the flank steak with the side of gouda mashed potatoes.  I go with the classic burger with cheddar and fries.  I’m not a potato person but I do enjoy an occasional fry or three.  These were fried to perfection. The gouda mashed potatoes are delicious too and I distract Bill to snag another forkful.  The flow of our meal is so efficient that we are able to split the peanut butter -chocolate mousse with graham cracker crust. Fluffy, light sweetness! We easily arrive at TimeLine in time to get two seats together.  Good call by our server because this show is selling out! We spot folks from the booth behind us happily clustered together too.  A forlorn couple arriving just before curtain have to sit in separate rows.  They obviously didn’t eat at Erwin. 

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