Had I known television was a local deal, I would probably have paid more attention to the set sitting on a little table in my grandpa's San Francisco living room.

At the time, though, all I really knew of television was that it was a tiny screen inside a great big box, and the only picture you saw consisted of squiggly lines or snow. The picture invariably got worse when my father, uncle and grandpa would wrestle over control of the "rabbit ears" antenna.

Then one day, for a brief and shining moment, we watched almost a whole commercial for Goebel Beer. The ad featured a talking and singing rooster named Brewster. And I was smitten. Television was my new best friend; it brought me the can-can dancing girls in a Milani 1890 French Dressing commercial as well as Howdy Doody and "Space Patrol."

Now, a 60-inch set sits in the corner of the family room, but the story about how it got there is on stage at Lafayette's Town Hall Theatre. It's a tale of big science and big business and the filthy double-dealing that made one man unimaginably rich and put another man in absolute hell for four decades.

That tale is "The Farnsworth Invention," Aaron Sorkin's ("The Social Network," "West Wing") gripping and wildly entertaining play about how television was invented by Philo Farnsworth in his lab, at 202 Green St. in San Francisco, and then -- according to this version -- stolen by David Sarnoff, president of RCA. Farnsworth eventually loses his interests in the invention to Sarnoff and Russian inventor Vladimir Zworykin.


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The war for control of the monumental invention makes for an engaging and heartbreaking play, even if -- as many accounts claim -- the work is not completely accurate. The complex legal battle over control of the television has, in this case, been simplified to a single lawsuit. Some critics also claim that Farnsworth's life of obscurity and destitution owing to the fight has been overexaggerated in the play.

Michael Doppe plays Philo beautifully as an innocent, wide-eyed Utah farm boy who just happens to be a scientific genius. He pretty much comes up with the basic invention of television while in high school, a fact that amazed his science teacher so much that he held on to the drawings Philo had made for him.

Sarnoff, played by Jeffrey Draper, is a dazzling sophisticate compared to Farnsworth. He, too, was an electronics genius, but he also had a flair for business and a good notion about the kind of impact television would have on the world.

While the leads are incredibly good, it's the supporting cast -- Tom Flynn, Dennis Markam, Jerry Motta, Paul Plain, Derrick Silva, Jenna Stich, Jessica Variz, Anya Kazimierski -- who make the play the highly theatrical treat that it is. The show unfolds on a simple but effective set by Chris Hayes and with appropriate period costumes designed by Marianna Ford.

And much of the credit must go to the director, Joel Roster, who has engendered a true passion in his cast for telling this still-controversial story and giving it an immediacy that belies the fact that it took place more than a half-century ago.

Contact Pat Craig at pjcraig495@yahoo.com.

'THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION'

By Aaron Sorkin; presented by Town Hall Theatre
Company

Through: March 2
Where: Town Hall Theatre, 3535 School St., Lafayette
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $25-$32;
925-283-1557,
www.townhalltheatre.com