Coming off a successful run of Love and Taxes in Seattle and with a film version of his earlier monologue Red Diaper Baby premiering today (Friday) at SF’s Roxie and Marin’s Rafael theaters, solo performer Josh Kornbluth has declared a “Joshtoberfest” wi th the opening of Ben Franklin: Unplugged at SF’s Magic Theatre in Fort Mason in advance of a national tour.
Seated familiarly at the stage set version of his Berkeley kitchen table (designed by Annie Smart), Kornbluth (it’s a sign of his shy winsomeness that it’s hard not to just call him Josh)—bespectacled with round, shiny, smiling face and long hair on the sides of his bald head—explains that one day he had a revelation while shaving: He looks like Ben Franklin.
Delighted by this, as “everything in my life, I’ve put in a piece . . . I’m out of life,” he decides to research Franklin as the character for a monologue: “The first American! My grandparents were among the first Un-Americans”—and mentions it casually to his mother on the phone: “Well, your uncle was the Jewish Clark Gable.”
Kornbluth’s rapid-fire delivery is syncopated by his gestures as he paces the linoleum, spinning his yarn to the audience. But he’s peripatetic in other ways too: phone calls to and from his native New York, his Stalin ist mother interrupted by his Aunt Birdie (“A Communist millionaire during the Blacklist; that takes drive!”), who’s determined Josh will play Ben on MSNBC; he also travels from a gig in Hartford by train to see his family (and do the TV spots) in NYC, ge tting off in New Haven (“Where Amtrak switches from diesel to electric—and the Franklin Papers are at Yale, a local call!”).
Having sworn never to visit Yale, from which he’d been rejected (“one of many colleges that rejected me”) as an “unlikely” enrol lee, Josh makes contact with the mysterious “Claude,” a Franklin scholar (who, he announced, will appear with him at The Magic Nov. 6)—and the entree to the archive, where he ends up skulking all night, investigating Franklin’s puzzling (and harsh) relati onship with his son William, colonial governor of New Jersey and Royalist terrorist during the Revolutionary War.
He’s reminded of his own relationship with his father, their mutual frustration with each other (“He called it the ‘First’ American Revoluti on, a dress rehearsal for the real, Communist revolution—which I was supposed to lead!”)—and ends up giving an impromteau lecture to “likely” Yalies about “his” Ben Franklin, and why Franklin’s autobiography elides the Revolutionary years and switches from second to third person in addressing his son, dedicatee of its first part.
Some Kornbluth fans may be slightly let down at first by the unwinding monologue’s pace; it’s maybe not as freewheeling or as frenetically funny as his previous efforts. But it makes up for that with a richer concept that’s fulfilled through a meticulously worked-out story, amusing repetitions (a little bit a la Lubitsch) that dovetail with new vignettes while adding rhythmically to the whole tale as it unfolds.
Kornbluth’s lon gtime collaboration with Z Space Artistic Director David Dower, his director, pays off in all the little details that get gathered up and resown in the telling. Different from the crop of comics writing gags for TV or pieces for the New Yorker peppered wi th name-dropping and coy academic references, Kornbluth takes everybody along with him on his verbal journey of discovery at a leisurely pace (belied by his glib burp-gun delivery) uniquely his own.
(Plus there’s the rare pleasure of seeing him in Ben Franklin drag, trailing a kite: “a big part of the budget,” when he becomes “The Jewish Ben Franklin”—and MSNBC sends him to a dating service, “a white male Founding Father,” not to mention around the streets of New York, where he confronts gun-nut militia leaders protesting at the UN, and explains the Second Amendment to them.)
The one quibbling point with his “obsessive” historical account: I wish he’d made another aside of a sentence or two about the mass exodus of Loyalists to Canada, the West Indies a nd Great Britain after the Revolution. That profound social trauma was reflected in the split between Ben and his son. But in his telling of his “revelation” of the meaning of that split, and of Ben’s Polonius-like preaching, to the fresh-faced Yalies, he fulfills his father’s frustrated wishes in a way as devious as the plot of his long-winded, self-involved tale . . .
Long-winded and self-involved; the audience is delighted to be involved with Josh and to go anywhere his longwinded-filled sails take hi m.