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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Aaron Sorkin is known best as a television writer and producer, especially as creator of "The West Wing." But he got his start on Broadway 19 years ago with the play, "A Few Good Men. He is back now with a new play, "The Farnsworth Invention." It happens to be all about television as Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: It's hard to think of a more ubiquitous device than the television. They're in our living rooms, our dens, our bedrooms, even in the kitchen. Sometimes houses have more TVs than people.

Actor Hank Azaria who stars in "The Farnsworth Invention" has spent quite oblivious career on television.

Mr. HANK AZARIA (Actor): I make my living in television; I love television; I'm a TV addict. I was raised on television — and I didn't know about this story until I read this play.

LUNDEN: "The Farnsworth Invention" is based on the true story of the birth of television and the battle to control the patents. At its core are two strong characters.

Philo Farnsworth was a self-trained scientist who grew up on a farm in Idaho and came up with the first workable idea for television. David Sarnoff was the Machiavellian visionary who was one of the founders of RCA and NBC.

Convinced of the potential power of television, he tried to steal Farnsworth's invention.

Aaron Sorkin says, according to his research, Sarnoff clearly won the battle.

Mr. AARON SORKIN (Playwright): There are about a half-dozen books written about Sarnoff, about half a dozen written about Philo. If you read any of the books about Philo, Sarnoff is a huge character in these books. He's a Darth Vader character in these books. If you read any of the books about Sarnoff, if Philo is mentioned at all, he gets one sentence.

LUNDEN: But Sorkin says each men, in his own way, was essential to the development of television.

Mr. SORKIN: They were able to see things that others weren't able to see. Primarily, in this case, they were able to see what television was going to be. Where everyone else just saw, as they say in the play, that it was just going to be a parlor trick for a bunch of rich people, these two saw that, one day, every house was going to have one. And this was going to be, simply, part of our water supply.

(Soundbite of play, "The Farnsworth Invention")

Mr. AZARIA: (As David Sarnoff) It's 1921. Nobody had it; nobody was close. And let me tell you, nobody cared that much.

Mr. JIMMI SIMPSON (Actor): (As Philo Farnsworth) It's a gadget. It's a parlor trick for a couple of rich people.

Mr. AZARIA: (As David Sarnoff) Nobody had it except a 14-year-old kid in Rigby, Idaho, standing in a field of potatoes.

Mr. AZARIA: (As David Sarnoff) (As Philo Farnsworth) More or less (unintelligible) material like say the (unintelligible). It released and spread electrons (unintelligible).

Mr. AZARIA: (As David Sarnoff) Yeah.

Mr. SIMPSON: (As Philo Farnsworth) And the cathode is setting me off it, right?

Mr. AZARIA: (As David Sarnoff) It was time to build a television set. I need $20,000 to set up a lab and create a device that will transmit pictures, moving pictures, electronically through the air and then reassemble them. A great distance is only a fraction of a second.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Sorkin says he was initially approached to do a movie about Philo Farnsworth. But a few days after he signed with the film studio, he realized the story could be told more effectively as a play.

Mr. SORKIN: Philo and David Sarnoff never met each other, so in the movie there was no way to get them talking to each other. In a play, you can do whatever you want. So I came up with the notion of the unreliable narrator — in this case two unreliable narrators, each narrating each other's story, accusing the other of lying, getting things wrong, you know, you forgot about this, and kind of dueling it out through the end, while their stories were being played on the stage.

(Soundbite of play, "The Farnsworth Invention")

Mr. SIMPSON: (As Philo Farnsworth) He sent them to my lab.

Mr. AZARIA: (As David Sarnoff) It wasn't like it was a secure area. Scientists aren't supposed to operate in secret. You share as much information as you can.

Mr. SIMPSON: (As Philo Farnsworth) If you're are eager, show it to me.

Mr. AZARIA: (As David Sarnoff) I had a light problem.

Mr. SIMPSON: (As Philo Farnsworth) No, you had a huge like problem. If you hadn't it would have been done by now. If you hadn't you would have owned television. But if you'd had it, somebody, somewhere, anybody, anywhere, anyone other than me, would have heard of you.

Mr. AZARIA: (As David Sarnoff) I really ended up in your nightmares, didn't I?

Mr. SIMPSON: (As Philo Farnsworth) I sleep fine.

LUNDEN: Hank Azaria plays David Sarnoff. He says, normally, doing a play with so much direct address to the audience would be a huge challenge.

Mr. AZARIA: What you hate as an actor it's exposition. You hate having to deliver it; we call it laying pipe. And, I mean, it sucks. And you fight it, and you try to find ways to make it interesting, and you busy it up with an action or with something going on. In this play, it's almost — it's probably more than 50 percent exposition — and it never feels like I'm delivering an expository line. I think that that's Aaron's - dare I say genius? It's at the very least, his expert craftsmanship.

LUNDEN: And Aaron Sorkin has crafted a play of epic size. "The Farnsworth Invention" employs a cast of 19 actors, playing 150 different roles.

Des McAnuff has directed the play on an ever changing two-tiered set, but there's one thing that's conspicuously absent: a television screen. McAnuff says that was a very conscious choice.

Mr. DES McANUFF (Director, "The Farnsworth Invention"): Clearly, we all know what a television screen looks like. So it's much more interesting to see the faces of the people who are witnessing television for the first time.

(Soundbite of play, "The Farnsworth Invention")

Mr. SIMPSON: (As Philo Farnsworth) That's the smoke.

Unidentified Man #1: Hang on.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh my god.

Unidentified Man #2: It is - my face. We got a picture.

Unidentified Man #3: Pictures.

(Soundbite of woman screaming)

LUNDEN: "The Farnsworth Invention" was in previews when the stagehands' strike shut down Broadway. After a three-week hiatus, the show opened last night. Producer Michael David told NPR late last week that he was nervous about the effects of the shutdown.

Mr. MICHAEL DAVID (Producer, "The Farnsworth Invention"): We are so pleased to be out of paralysis and anxious to go again. And frankly, I think we'll get our stuff together. Can we back get back the momentum? It's so hard to find and you cannot buy for our little show in the midst sort of, you know, happening. So we cross our fingers.

LUNDEN: One thing that the show has going for it is Aaron Sorkin's marquee value, something he has earned through his prolific work on television. But Sorkin admits it's taken him a while to return to the stage.

Mr. SORKIN: I would have preferred to have come back much sooner with a play, but I didn't have an idea for one. At the moment, I'm averaging an idea every 19 years. And I'm hoping in the second half of my life, I'll pick up the pace a little bit. I've loved writing in television and I hope I write more. I love writing movies and I hope I write more. But there's no place I'd rather be than in New York with a play.

LUNDEN: "The Farnsworth Invention" is playing an open-ended run at the Music Box Theater on Broadway.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

MONTAGNE: Another show that mixes the stage and television is coming to New York.

(Soundbite of song, "Talk to the Hand")

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) Talk to the hand.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) He's your tragic. He's your (unintelligible). Hug your brother. He's your dad.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) Talk to the hand.

MONTAGNE: Hear that - because your brother is your dad. That's part of "Jerry Springer: The Opera," an absurd singing and dancing version of the (unintelligible) daytime talk show.

In the performance, actors play the show's guest and the audience. And there are cameos by men in diapers and tap dancing members of the Ku Klux Klan. The show has been a huge hit in Britain since it opened in London four years ago. And next month, it will be staged here in the U.S. in a special concert version at Carnegie Hall.

You are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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