REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

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TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

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Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.

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Timeline Theatre announces final extension of “The History Boys”

Timeline announces final extension of “The History Boys”

thru OCTOBER 18th

historyboys1 Marking its 100th Performance at Timeline, and with continued ticket demand resulting in 18 weeks of sold-out performances so far, TimeLine Theatre Company announces a third and final extension of its critically acclaimed and Equity Jeff Award-nominated Chicago premiere of The History Boys by Alan Bennett, directed by Nick Bowling. The History Boys, originally scheduled to end June 21 and previously extended to August 2 and then September 27, will close on October 18, 2009, at TimeLine Theatre, 615 Wellington Ave., Chicago.

Tickets for performances during this final The History Boys extension go on sale Friday, September 4 at 12 p.m., online at timelinetheatre.com or via phone by calling the TimeLine Theatre Box Office at 773.281.TIME (8463).

Download “The History Boys Study Guide

Fun “History Boys” Facts:

Since its Opening Night on Saturday, April 25, 2009, The History Boys has broken records and set numerous new ones for TimeLine. The play celebrates its 100th performance today, Thursday, September 3 at 7:30 p.m. — well beyond the previous record of 77 performances set by the remount of Fiorello! in 2008. Tickets to the 100th performance are sold out but theater fans are invited to celebrate with the cast and production team after the show at Wilde Restaurant & Bar, 3130 N. Broadway, beginning at approximately 10:45 p.m.

More of The History Boys by the numbers:

  • Equity Jeff Award nominations: 5 (Outstanding Production – Midsize; Ensemble; Director, Nick Bowling; Scenic Design – Midsize, Brian Sidney Bembridge; Actor in a Supporting Role – Play, Alex Weisman)
  • Length of the entire run: 25 weeks of performances over six months April 25, 2009 through October 18, 2009
  • Number of performances in the entire run: 140
  • Number of the first 100 performances that have sold out: 100
  • Average percentage capacity sold: 104% (Number of seats: 87)
  • Number of people who have seen the production through September 30: 8,732
  • Number projected to have seen the production through October 18: 12,500 (previous record was 6,309 for the remount of Fiorello! in 2008; the number of people who saw Fiorello! over the course of both of its runs in 2006 and 2008 was 9,254)
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The History Boys Performance Schedule

The performance schedule for The History Boys between September 3 and October 18 is: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 pm. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

The History Boys runs 3 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.

The History Boys Tickets

Tickets for The History Boys extension performances are $32 (Wednesday – Friday) or $42 (Saturday & Sunday). Student tickets are $10 off regular price, with valid ID. Group rates for groups of 10 or more are available. Advance purchase is strongly recommended.

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For play synopsis, cast list, and directions to the theatre, click on “Read more”.

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