November 4, 2007
The New York Times
By Bruce Weber
Prodigal Returns, Bearing Dialogue
THE souvenir shop in Shubert Alley, the heart of the theater district, wasn’t open the other morning as Aaron Sorkin walked by, but he stopped and squinted in the window. Frowning, he expressed disappointment that the “Wicked” T-shirts were stacked untidily on a shelf, the logos unaligned. Mr. Sorkin once worked in this very shop, in the fall of 1983, when he was fresh from studying musical theater at Syracuse University and came to New York to get work as an actor.
“My job was mostly folding ‘Cats’ shirts,” Mr. Sorkin said. “And it wasn’t as easy as it looked because they wanted you to fold them in a special way, so that the eyes all lined up in the stack.”
He pointed at the theater next door.
“Here at the Booth was a revival of ‘American Buffalo’ with Al Pacino,” he recalled. “And one day the actor who was playing the kid, I can’t remember his name” — it was James Hayden — “he came into the store, excited as can be that we had his poster in there. It was maybe three weeks later that he had a heroin overdose in his apartment and died.”
For Mr. Sorkin, the celebrated television and film writer best known as the creator of “The West Wing,” Shubert Alley and memory lane are pretty much the same place. He walks around the neighborhood with the nostalgic appreciation of someone who grew up here, which in a professional sense he did (his childhood home was 45 minutes away, in Scarsdale), and with both eagerness and trepidation about reintroducing himself, as he’s doing with a new play, “The Farnsworth Invention.” It opens at the Music Box Theater on Nov. 14.
“Listen, all I ever wanted to be was a playwright,” Mr. Sorkin said. “I got out of college and came to New York, and it never occurred to me that you can go to L.A. and there are entry-level positions to be had in TV and the movies. I only ever thought of playwriting.”
It’s fair to call him a theatrical prodigal son. It was in 1989 that Mr. Sorkin, then a precocious 28-year-old, landed on Broadway with his first play, the court-martial drama “A Few Good Men.” “I wrote the first draft on cocktail napkins while I was working as a bartender at the Palace Theater during ‘La Cage Aux Folles,’ ” he said.
The play ran for 497 performances and received solid reviews (though not in this newspaper), the kind of career propulsion that any fledgling playwright would relish. But a faster track beckoned. The movie rights were sold. Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson signed on to leading roles. Mr. Sorkin was drafted to write the screenplay, and just like that he vanished from Broadway and the theater and into the world of the movies and television.
In Hollywood his gift for dialogue and his prolific output — including the series “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and the feature films “Malice,” “The American President” and the forthcoming “Charlie Wilson’s War” — became legend. So did his addiction problems (including a 2001 arrest at Burbank Airport when hallucinogenic mushrooms, marijuana and crack were found in his luggage). And though not everything he wrote was a success — “Studio 60,” a backstage look at a “Saturday Night Live”-like comedy show, was canceled in June after only one season — he earned consistent critical plaudits, a lot of money and not a small amount of tabloid celebrity.
“It had its fans but not enough to stay on the air,” Mr. Sorkin said about “Studio 60.” “If you’re very lucky in show business, you win some, and you lose most. I’ve been very lucky.” The remark, both defensive and cagy, is typical. In conversation, you can usually hear Mr. Sorkin’s work, the clever self-awareness that he gives to virtually all his characters. And his speech has an urgent, searching quality, as though le mot juste were a grail.
“He’s always a little restless, and just when you’re happiest to be with him, he’ll say, ‘Well, gotta go,’ ” said Mike Nichols, who directed “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Mr. Sorkin’s adaptation of George Crile’s book about the swashbuckling Texas congressman who, in the early 1980s, commandeered secret C.I.A. money to support the Afghans fighting the Soviet occupation. “It actually makes him more endearing that you can’t get enough of him.”
Now 46, Mr. Sorkin has the look of a rakish, slightly dissipated academic, handsome with a strain around the eyes, like someone who has worked and played a little too hard for too long. “I’ve been healthy for six and a half years,” he said. “But like any addict I’m one phone call away from that not being true.”
Since he left New York, he has been married and divorced — during rehearsals of “The Farnsworth Invention” he has been flying back to Los Angeles every week to see his 6-year-old daughter — and has been linked to several boldface names, most recently Kristin Chenoweth.
Around Broadway Mr. Sorkin’s departure was much lamented. He was even a little resented for being young and ambitious and doing what young, ambitious writers did. “I was such a cliché,” he said. “I thought I would go to L.A. for a few weeks, finish this screenplay and then come back and write my second play.”
During the ’90s, when new plays were exceedingly rare in the commercial theater, Mr. Sorkin was often cited as Exhibit A that the young American playwright, faced with the big-money allure of Hollywood, was an endangered species.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mr. Sorkin said. “I grew up being taken to plays all the time, and for me these places, these theaters between 41st and 53rd Streets and Sixth and Ninth Avenues, are very much like cathedrals.”
In any case, he said, things appear to have changed for the better; his play is sharing a single city block with new works by Tom Stoppard, Conor McPherson and Tracy Letts.
“I don’t mean to sound self-aggrandizing, but if I had a new television series coming out, it would be a big story,” he said. “Here, I’m way down the list.”
Maybe, maybe not. “The Farnsworth Invention,” which opens almost exactly 18 years after the curtain rose on “A Few Good Men” — and on the very same stage — is a big show, budgeted at $4 million, with 19 actors playing more than 60 roles and covering a good chunk of the first half of the 20th century. It moves fast enough that the director, Des McAnuff, hired a choreographer, Lisa Shriver, to help move the actors on, off and around the stage.
Fittingly, the play’s subject is television. Or maybe it’s self-flagellation, given that Mr. Sorkin has written about television before — on television — and not all that successfully. (“Sports Night” only lasted one season longer than “Studio 60.”) The Farnsworth invention is television, and the story focuses on the two men most responsible for bringing it into the world.
One was the visionary mogul David Sarnoff (played by Hank Azaria), a Russian Jew who as president of RCA and the founder of NBC first recognized the looming importance of television and marshaled the corporate resources to control its development; the other was Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), an unlikely and essentially unknown savant who grew up on an Idaho potato farm and, as a teenager, found the technological solution that made the electronic transmission of live images possible in the first place.
The two men never met but clashed in courtrooms over rights and patents for more than a decade, and though it’s tempting to interpret the story as a 20th-century tragedy, a perverse David-and-Goliath parable in which David gets stomped, Mr. Sorkin’s intent was more complicated. The two geniuses are dueling narrators, each telling the other’s story, their alternating voices spiced with personal animus, moral ambivalence, anguish and regret.
“Both characters have a utopian vision for what television could be,” Mr. Sorkin said. “And we already know the punch line of that joke. So for me it’s not a story about television. It’s an optimistic story about the spirit of exploration.”
Devotees of Mr. Sorkin’s television series will be able to discern the author’s signature in the new play, namely the kind of dialogue that presumes both the performers and the audience can handle ideas, shrewdness, irony, wit and learning.
“He’s a writer who anticipates the actor and the actor’s intelligence,” said Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright and actor, who appeared in “The American President” and in a recurring role in “The West Wing.” “There’s more language and more character than we’re used to. That’s one of the things he brought to TV from the theater.”
Joshua Malina, who has known Mr. Sorkin since childhood and who appeared as a regular character in “Sports Night” and “The West Wing” as well as in the original Broadway cast of “A Few Good Men,” said all of Mr. Sorkin’s work seemed to derive from his love of the theater.
“‘The West Wing’ read like a play,” Mr. Malina said, “but the high level of dialogue is just of a piece with everything else he’s written. All his characters are hyperarticulate — I can only wish I was that lucid, or even that I knew people who were — but somehow he doesn’t sacrifice realism. You just believe you’re in a better world where people are thoughtful and cogent.”
Mr. Sorkin acknowledged that dialogue was both his main interest and strength. “Dialogue’s what I’m crazy about,” he said. “I’m not a natural storyteller.”
The predilection was ingrained in him as a boy, he said, at the family dinner table, where his parents — his father was a patent lawyer, his mother a fourth-grade teacher — encouraged rapid-fire discourse; they also took him regularly to Broadway.
“I’m not sure what my parents were thinking, what was wrong with them, but I saw ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ when I was, like, 9,” he said. “I saw ‘That Championship Season’ when I was 12. I didn’t understand the stories, but I was nuts for the sound of dialogue. It sounded like music to me, and I badly wanted to imitate it.”
There is, in this story, a reason — not an excuse, but a reason — for Mr. Sorkin’s sojourn in television. After all, a TV series, though it needs regular conflict, doesn’t need a whole story, a beginning and an end. It is a perfect medium, in other words, for a fool for dialogue.
“TV is all middle,” Mr. Sorkin said. A play, on the other hand, isn’t.
“I had no idea for a play,” he said. “That’s always been the problem. Truly, I would’ve written the play sooner if I’d had an idea.” It was his older sister, Deborah, a lieutenant in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, whose recounting of one of her cases gave him the skeleton of “A Few Good Men.”
The story of how “The Farnsworth Invention” came to be written has a pretty good plot itself. It dates to the early ’90s, when Fred Zollo, a producer, approached Mr. Sorkin with the idea of turning a memoir by Elma Farnsworth, Philo’s widow, into a biopic.
“I was interested, but I didn’t quite know how I would do it,” Mr. Sorkin said. “But for a while I found myself asking people, ‘Have you ever heard of Philo Farnsworth?’” (The question comes up in an episode of “Sports Night” too.)
“There’s a couple of other books about Philo, and in them the Darth Vader character is David Sarnoff,” he continued. “And there are another six or eight books written about Sarnoff, and in those books Philo, if he was mentioned at all, would get maybe a sentence. I began, suddenly, to identify with Sarnoff. It’s pure coincidence, but he happens to come from the same shtetl as my grandparents. And his life was fascinating, and when I left ‘The West Wing’ after the fourth season, I decided to write the movie.” He sold it to New Line Cinema.
This was in 2004, around Christmastime. Mr. Sorkin was visiting New York, and possibly inspired by that, he was thinking he wanted to write a play.
“I don’t know why, I just said to myself, pretend ‘The Farnsworth Invention’ is a play, and suddenly it was entirely different, the story I was telling and the way I was telling it. Two days later I had about 30 pages, sent them to my agent, and I said, ‘Am I crazy, or doesn’t this work better as a play?’ And he called back and said, ‘Listen, I’ve never said this to a client before, but we’ve got to give New Line their money back.’”
The real paradox, Mr. Sorkin said, is that the movie rights to the play have already been sold, “and I don’t have a clue how to turn it back into a film.”
After the opening preview of “The Farnsworth Invention” the producers arranged a party for the cast and crew. The performance had gone well, and though Mr. Sorkin was beside himself over a missed light cue, the audience members didn’t pick up on it. They did appear to recognize that “The Farnsworth Invention” shares with “The West Wing” an admiration of America and its institutions and a sense of inevitable human failure, the pervasive theme that in spite of the best efforts of good people, things hardly ever turn out as well as they should.
“Aaron reminds me of Clifford Odets,” said Mr. Zollo, who has stuck with the project for more than 15 years. “He’s angry, but he hides it so eloquently that you accept it.”
Mr. Sorkin was looking around the room, breathing in the atmosphere.
“I’ve always envied Robbie Baitz,” he said, referring to the author of “The Substance of Fire” and other plays. “He has a TV series now, and he’s written a bunch of movies, but by and large he’s stuck around New York and wrote plays. He made his living and his name writing plays, good plays, and that’s what I meant to do.”
“By the way, I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “I was very proud of the television that I wrote, and the movies. But I want to be accepted by the community that I’ve always wanted to be accepted by. There’s no doubt about it. I do.”