Cruising the thespian highway, we can make out a variety of theatrical edifices. There is, for instance, the junk-food emporium, dealing in decomposing theater clichés. This category includes the gossiping big mamas and cancer-ridden Steel Magnolias heroines of beauty shops. It can also encompass the stale pretensions and affectations of Broadway high priests. Think of Neil Simon's female Odd Couple or the nuclear human garbage dumps of Neil LaBute.
Across the road there are the lush mansions, constructed out of the sublimity of such perceptions of human nature as provided by Chekhov and Shaw's loquacious brilliance on every subject. Smack in the center we have well-wrought middlebrow kitsch. These are the plays with paint-by-number lofty ideas, which display a brightly lit road map to the works from which they "borrow."
This is where Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention comfortably nestles. Sorkin's fame is as a TV writer of well-crafted ensemble pieces like The West Wing. As a playwright, he is a crackerjack architect who knows how to erect an imposing facade, which in the present case is a template from Peter Shaffer's Amadeus set on the 20th-century race to make the miracle of television a practical commodity.
Sorkin turns this real-life competition between media mogul/RCA boss David Sarnoff and mom-and-pop inventor Philo Farnsworth into a telling metaphor of capitalism versus individual genius. The multi-scene play charges through social history at enjoyable warp speed with pithily expressive dialogue and a knack for simple clarification of complex scientific issues. On the downside, there's not a moment deeper than any insight contained in a comic book.
Beck's mounting is one of those occasions when lack of budget and directing innovation hurt. Visually, the production often resembles a free-for-all in a thrift store. On the whole, the 20-member cast is competent and valiant, topped by Sebiastian Hawkes Orr's heartbreaking, cornfed Farnsworth and Paul Floriano's amiably duplicitous Sarnoff.
Invariably, though, the evening is akin to a swig of Crystal Lite - liquid, flavorful and refreshing while going down, yet leaving you thirsting for a more substantial brew.
The Farnsworth Invention Through April 11 Beck Center for the Arts 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood 216.521.2540 Tickets: $20-$31beckcenter.org