A Love Affair with Electrons

Eric Samuelsen’s ambitious new play “A Love Affair with Electrons,” which he wrote and directed at BYU, tells the story of TV-inventor Philo T. Farnsworth while at the same time examining the impact television has had on us as an audience.

The structure of this busy, strikingly unusual play is a wonder by itself. We’re made to feel like a TV-studio audience, with two live cameras capturing all the action, which is shown simultaneously on a monitor above the stage — meaning you can either watch it “for real” in front of you, or you can watch it “on TV.” And just like at a real TV taping, the cameramen often get in your way, forcing you to watch the monitor.

The shallow narrator, Todd McKay (Casey Griffiths), clearly inspired by Troy McClure on “The Simpsons,” tells Farnsworth’s story in true TV fashion: dull details are made more interesting, events not relating to the story are left out, some outright fabrications are made. His reason? “Why bother with the facts when you can tell such a great story?”

He is the personification of everything that bad TV is: two-dimensional, uninspired and insincere.

His adversary is Pem Farnsworth (Shelley Graham), Philo’s wife, who often interrupts to tell the real, non-TV version of the story. When she does, she goes up into the audience — hugely symbolic, as that’s the one place the TV cameras can’t see her face and put her on the screen.

Ryan Rauzon plays the much-beleaguered Farnsworth with his usual casual energy, fulling dedicating himself to the part while making it look effortless. Graham has more than a few nice moments, too, trying to defend the truth and keep her husband’s story from becoming just a cheesy TV drama.

Each “chapter” in Philo’s life is set up like a different TV genre. This starts out strongly, with his early farm-boy days presented in “Rigby,” a lame sitcom complete with broad acting and braying laugh track.

The genre idea falters after that, though, as there is ultimately little distinction, in acting style or storytelling techniques, between a courtroom drama (“TV Torts”) and a government-agent thriller (“G-Men at War”). These shows tend to be flatly acted and melodramatic, and that’s how they come across here, too. Is this intentional, to show that TV is often superficial, even while it’s telling us a compelling story? If it is, it goes on for too long. We can accept, for a while, that everyone’s over-acting on purpose because that’s how TV does it — but after a while, it stops being an indictment of bad acting and just becomes bad acting, an unfortunate misuse of a very talented ensemble cast.

There is much to love about this play, though. In ways both subtle and obvious, it shows how TV skews reality. We see two actors sitting side-by-side on stage. However, by using two cameras and two different angles, the TV version makes them look like they’re in separate rooms. A man talks on a phone whose cord, we can plainly see, plugs into nothing — unless you’re watching the screen, in which case the camera makes sure not to reveal that fact. Look at the stage and see one thing; look at what the cameras are filming and see something else.

There is also a delightfully wacked-out sense of humor in the pre-filmed commercials that play between segments, showing both a backhanded kind of love and a contempt for TV advertising and all it stands for.

“A Love Affair with Electrons” sticks too close to its format of theater-presented-like-a-TV-show — or, more precisely, its choice of TV shows to mimic doesn’t have enough variety to keep the format going. But the overall impact is thought-provoking and powerful, and its message — about what we watch and what TV has done to us — is fresh and exciting. Turn off the TV and go watch this show.

The entire design of this whole show really was striking, and obviously took a great deal of effort. Samuelsen took a huge risk here, and it mostly paid off. I admire his courage for even trying such a thing, let alone directing it himself.