NEW YORK - The problem with

The Farnsworth Invention

, the new and engrossing play that opened on Broadway last night, is not theater. As for theatricality, this story about a battle between RCA and the man who invented television is a magnetizing gem, moving about the stage almost as if it were dance.

The problem with

The Farnsworth Invention

is fact. Playwright Aaron Sorkin's take on the gargantuan, and real, patent battle between the visionary chief of RCA, David Sarnoff, and the boy wonder Philo T. Farnsworth is a great tale. But here, it's a tale. Even the producers sense trouble ahead; they sent critics a statement about the playwright's extensive research (which he obviously did) and his resulting artistic decision-making.

Sorkin, a facile writer who gave us such plays and films as

A Few Good Men

and

The American President

- and for TV,

The West Wing

- has written "a memory play from the minds of the two most interesting, yet least objective sources - adversaries Philo Farnsworth and David Sarnoff," the producers say. "These characters acknowledge their own unreliability throughout the course of the play."

That they do, particularly Sarnoff, as played with a striking authority by the superb Hank Azaria. But let's be upfront here: Our memories may approach facts with great license, yet facts remain facts. And a play that tells us, from the memories of its characters, that a big corporation trampled the little guy - when in fact, the little guy ultimately won in court - may excel artistically, even as it misleads us about our own history.

I'm sorry to report all this - I had a great time at the theater. Afterward, I thought about the way

The Farnsworth Invention

manipulated the facts and, in the end, its audience. I felt defrauded.

Some facts, everyone agrees on. Philo T. Farnsworth (wonderfully portrayed from the heart by Jimmi Simpson), who died in 1971, was so smart that when he was barely a teenager, he invented the mechanism that allows you to put your key in your car's driving-wheel assembly, open a lock, and start the ignition at the same time. Around the same time, while plowing the family potato farm in Idaho, those lines of crops he was working gave him a scientific idea.

What if you took those lines and somehow imbued them with tiny bits of electronic imagery? In 1921, Farnsworth sketched a detailed diagram of how it could work and showed it to his high school chemistry teacher, who was impressed and supportive. The kid was on his way to sending the first TV signal.

And RCA, which became Sarnoff's empire and the money behind his brilliance, was about to change the world - with radio. Their engineers had been working, unsuccessfully, on an instrument that, even early on, was being called television. But success came after a chief RCA engineer, Vladimir Zworykin, visited Farnsworth in his West Coast lab.

And so,

The Farnsworth Invention

becomes the story of a patent fight, the classic David/Goliath, only in this case, both of them are great minds who constantly give of themselves for the common good. (And yes, there's some chuckling in the audience about what TV ultimately became, spurred cleverly by Sorkin's script.)

Fact is, Farnsworth - who worked part of his life for Philco in Philadelphia, did many experimental broadcasts in the city and presented his invention to worldwide acclaim at the Franklin Institute - won the fight, and later received royalties from RCA for his invention. But he lost the war, in part because his own company, in a number of missteps, did not produce TVs. RCA did, and had a powerhouse of propagandists to make America believe that TV sprang, somehow fully blown, from the company's minds and labs.

If the play were about the power of public relations and not focused on patents, it would work both on stage and in reality. And, true, you're likely to be impressed by its wit, the great style with which Des McAnuff directs it, and the top-quality performances. The stagecraft is unassailable. But sometimes at the theater, all the magic that stagecraft creates is not enough.

For a quick, authoritative rundown of the highs and lows of Farnsworth's remarkable life, visit the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The timeline is part of the academy's 2006 obituary of Farnsworth's wife, Pem, at

» READ MORE: www.emmys.tv/news/2006

/april/farnsworth.php.

The Farnsworth Invention

Written by

Aaron Sorkin, directed by Des McAnuff, scenery by Klara Zieglerova, costumes by David C. Woolard, lighting by Howell Binkley, sound by Walter Trarbach, music by Andrew Lippa.

The cast:

Jimmi Simpson (Philo T. Farnsworth), Hank Azaria (David Sarnoff), Bruce McKenzie (Vladimir Zworykin, others), Alexandra Wilson (Pem Farnsworth, others), Jim Ortlieb (Justin Tolman, others), Nadia Bowers (Lizette Sarnoff, others), Michael Mulheren (Leslie Gorrell, others).

Playing at

the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York. Tickets: $56.50 to $101.50. Information: 1-800-432-7250 or

.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.

philly.com/howardshapiro.