The Farnsworth Invention, by Aaron Sorkin, would make a great movie. Picture it: Sweeping shots of 1920s San Francisco, with its cobbled streets full of Model T Fords. Zoom in on the laboratory of Philo Farnsworth, workbenches piled with glass tubes and spare parts. What's this? A slow tracking shot of the RCA boardroom, where David Sarnoff grumbles at the head of a long conference table. Bring on the courtroom battles! The ponderous voiceover! The final face-off between rival inventors!
Indeed, Farnsworth was supposed to be a movie, but New Line Cinema dissolved the project in 2004. Instead, Farnsworth is a very complicated stage play, now receiving a feisty little Pittsburgh-premiere production at Little Lake Theatre. If you ever wanted to know about the creation of television -- and the lawsuits surrounding its patent -- Farnsworth is a worthwhile entertainment. If you couldn't care less how the boob tube came to be, Farnsworth is still an engaging character study about engineers and their obsessive minds.
If the name "Aaron Sorkin" rings any bells, it's probably because he created The West Wing -- another quaint, good-humored pageant that glamorizes boring topics. In West Wing, an impossibly awesome president is surrounded by a staff of witty screwballs in starched shirts. In Farnsworth, nearly everybody is some kind of prodigy, and they bat around one-liners like the electrons in an image-dissector. Sorkin is an upbeat writer, a guy who loves both legal trivia and vaudevillian dialogue. Farnsworth doesn't feel like an historical piece -- the dialogue is wholly modern -- but this obscure story gets told, and that is a curiosity in itself.
Director Jena Oberg must have felt ambitious this summer: Farnsworth is a tsunami of names, dates and characters, and the props alone must have taken weeks to accrue. Recycling actors in multiple roles has its drawbacks -- especially on a 360-degree stage, where backs are turned and faces are lost. But this is a peppy cast, and just as Farnsworth transmits a signal from one room to another, the Little Lakers manage to tell his 63-year saga in just over two hours.
The cast has mixed abilities -- some actors are hammier than others -- but Oberg has wisely cast two powerhouses as leads: Nathan Bell plays Farnsworth with wide-eyed excitement, and we can believe that he's the boy genius who never grew up. Art DeConciliis balances cynicism with high ideals as Sarnoff. For all its weaknesses, Farnsworth is a worthy invention. And it beats pretty much anything on TV.
The Farnsworth Invention continues through Aug. 14. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lake Side Drive (off Route 19), Canonsburg. 724-745-6300 or www.littlelaketheatre.org.