A showdown between visionaries is always timely — or so you might conclude, given two current shows about at-odds historical figures.
Now on view in an industrious and sometimes striking Theater Alliance production, Idris Goodwin’s play “The Raid” imagines an argument between Frederick Douglass and John Brown as the latter prepares to lead the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Both men yearn for the abolition of slavery but disagree on how to achieve that goal. As they wrangle over matters such as the strategic uses of violence and eloquence, their associates endure a night filled with anticipation, false alarms and fear.
Well stocked with flashbacks, Goodwin’s script has a plotted-out quality that registers as more diligent than inspired. Director Colin Hovde’s staging benefits from its leads: Nicklas Aliff shows off the crazed religious fervor that is the flip side of Brown’s empathy, while Marquis D. Gibson emphasizes Douglass’s dignity and canny reserve. Key supporting turns include Dylan J. Fleming as Douglass’s laconic associate Emperor and Josh Adams as Brown’s paranoid sidekick Henri.
The production gains intensity from its spare look and in-the-round staging; from Megan Thrift’s often-shadowy lighting; and from stylized and realistic fight sequences. (Cliff Williams III is fight director.) The actors, who wear timeless-looking modern dress, sit in the audience when not pivotal to a scene, a device that reinforces the play’s concern with memory and witness.
At 1st Stage, a more upbeat production also captures a contest between divergent visions of the future. “The Farnsworth Invention” recalls two of the figures who vied to invent television in the 1920s and ’30s: David Sarnoff, a media mogul, and Philo Farnsworth, an Idaho farm boy turned cash-strapped inventor. Playwright Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” etc.) depicts the two as David-vs.-Goliath opponents who, in not-so-trustworthy fashion, narrate each other’s stories, which bristle with Sorkin-brand snappy dialogue.
Director Alex Levy’s entertaining and smartly conceived production unfurls on and around circuitry-evoking scaffolding. The performers, who remain onstage when not in a given scene, create the furniture for various settings using scientific-equipment boxes and other bare-bones-laboratory components — a touch that enhances the script’s high-concept approach. (Kathryn Kawecki designed the set, and Cindy Jacobs, the props.)
Sam Ludwig makes an irresistible Farnsworth — brilliant yet socially bumbling — while Jonathan Lee Taylor, in a three-piece suit, aces the role of the ruthless and fast-talking Sarnoff. The other actors turn in workmanlike performances, portraying investors, executives, lawyers and more. (Danielle Preston designed the costumes, and Ethan Balis, the effective sound.)
As the play goes on, the Farnsworth-Sarnoff rivalry begins to symbolize a broader struggle: on the one hand, a vision of scientific fellowship harnessed to the broader good; on the other, commerce. We all know how that tug-of-war turned out.
The Raid by Idris Goodwin. Directed by Colin Hovde; assistant director, Dylan Morrison Myers; scenic design, Jessica Cancino; costumes, Danielle Preston; sound, Kevin Alexander; choreography, Hovde, Cliff Williams III and Robert Bowen Smith. With Smith, Tiffany Byrd and Moira Todd. About 80 minutes. Tickets: $30-$40. Through March 18 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. theateralliance.com.
The Farnsworth Invention by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Alex Levy; lighting design, Robbie Hayes; movement coach, Amanda Forstrom. With Forstrom, Frank Britton, Edward Christian and others. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Tickets: $15-$33. Through March 11 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean. 1ststagetysons.org.