Monday, December 17, 2007

Fact & Fiction

Jimmi Simpson and Hank Azaria in The Farnsworth Invention.

At the risk of sounding like a puritanical theatrical evangelist, I must confess to feeling a bit manipulated by two plays from a couple of top-notch dramatists. I understand there's a difference between fact and fiction, but what are the rules when you intertwine the two?

Although I mostly enjoyed Aaron Sorkin's sweeping saga The Farnsworth Invention, I felt cheated by the denouement, in which small-time inventor Philo Farnsworth squares off against RCA honcho David Sarnoff in a patent lawsuit that would lead to the creation of television. It's a pivotal plot point, and in the play Goliath defeats David. But in real life, just the opposite happened. Farnsworth won and was paid royalties for his invention, though he didn't make big bucks.

In the play, when Farnsworth loses the case, he and Sarnoff share their only scene together, and afterward Sarnoff makes a point of telling the audience that their conversation never really happened. Why, I wonder, are we told that moment was fictionalized but not that the outcome of the lawsuit was completely changed?

David Henry Hwang mixes real people and actual events with fictional ones in the hilarious Yellow Face — I laughed more in the first act alone than I did during all of Is He Dead? — and I give him much credit for not being afraid to make a character based on himself look like an idiot a great deal of the time. For the most part I'm with him when he sticks to the facts, and that's why the plotline involving a fictional white actor named Marcus whom his playwright character mistakenly casts as an Asian in Face Value, an ill-reviewed farce he wrote in response to the casting of Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in Miss Saigon, doesn't quite work.

It's never adequately explained how the casting director could have thought that Marcus was Asian. (And Don Shirley of Los Angeles City Beat agrees with me on this point.) Had that actually happened, I don't think it would have bothered me as much. But I think in fiction or drama writers have a greater responsibility to connect the dots.

I remember talking to a novelist who was complaining that a mediocre review she received criticized her for not creating a believable child character. "That's exactly how my niece behaves," she said. I didn't know her well enough to point out that just because someone behaves a certain way in real life doesn't mean you can put those qualities on the page and instantly have a convincing fictional character.

That said, I liked both Yellow Face and Farnsworth — the former a little more — and hope the audiences will come. And I hope they'll bring the same critical eye to them that they would to a presidential candidates promises.

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