“We’ve been exporting democracy to other countries around the world—and maybe we ran out! ... a soupcon of democracy, as they like to say at Chez Panisse ... I’m a monologist—and democracy is a dialogue. At least!”
Josh Kornbluth is back onstage in Berkeley—on the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Rep, to be specific—for a short run of his new self-reformulation, Citizen Josh, which opened some weeks back at The Magic Theater in San Francisco. And his monologue, which seems like a digression from (or back to) any other of his monologues, is fuller than ever of Berkeley names, places and events, constantly looping around to Josh wondering at the asymmetrical sculpture that towers in Ohlone Park, climbing to its vertiginous apex and getting cell phone reception to call his old college advisor, a continent away ...
As usual, a Kornbluth reformulation is a little like a new recipe on a cooking show by a less carefree (though just as insouciant)—and less goyish—Julia Child: it involves all the ingredients of the past, whisked up together in the bowl of performance, tasting a little different than before, but still the same old comfort food.
This time around, Josh is on another mission to redeem the past—his and America’s—by fulfilling his decades past graduation requirements through turning his monologue into his senior thesis—or is it vice versa? As the monologue (or monograph) verbally unfolds, he wends his way a bit crab like in and out of the slightly skewed incidents and encounters that influenced him to get out of physics and into poli-sci, off the East Coast and into his East Bay neighborhood and schtick, nicely syncopated with his growing-up-Red family routines.
And of course the self-deprecating route is just as important as the personal, if a little offbeat, triumph where it all ends up, like a kind of gathering-up of diaspora of personal history, a big reunion at an anniversary—or graduation, though that was long ago, on another coast ... and without a diploma in the proffered scroll.
“In my freshman year, my test scores were not reflecting the brilliant quality of my mind ... Cold Fusion, like a woman who dumped me!” So Josh personalizes his exit from science, taking up poli-sci by impulsively following his new advisor, former Berkeleyite Sheldon Wolin—“I knew not why”—down the byzantine corridors that resemble his own interweaving subplots and asides.
Before the semi-triumphant finish, which brings the audience to an epiphany that they’re part and parcel of their entertainer’s commitment to recovering his actual sheepskin, Josh has brought in a cast of dozens, at least; by implication, teeming masses, including his unregenerately Red parents, his preemie brother (introduced afterwards in the audience), whom his father saved by holding and pacing the ward, the brave African American students caught between guardsmen and white mobs in the integration experiment at Little Rock, Lonnie Hancock and Don Perata (a wry sketch of a master politico working a not-too-friendly room) each finally facing an irritable gaggle of Berkeley activists in the state capitol, the Free Speech movement ... and whoeverelse he can recover from the history of Western Civilization for a temporary fit.
A San Francisco reviewer referred to Josh’s digressions as “parables,” though they just might be footnotes to his overdue thesis, the kind that aim to impress by casting an eclectic net very wide. That said, there’s something the same about the Kornbluth format, almost a matter of timing, when Josh can wink at his audience and they collectively come up with the way he’s going to end a sentence, in one big shout.
Whether this is due to preaching to the choir too much, a certain kind of showbiz shrewdness (“Give ’em what they want,” as Billy Wilder opined while contemplating the overflow crowd at much-disliked movie mogul Harry Cohn’s funeral), or less preparation than some of his previous shows (or maybe those old formats are starting to catch up), it serves to reaffirm the faithful and leave lukewarm at best those who see in him a cute, cut-rate Woody Allen of Bay Area preoccupations.
But Josh is Josh, and as his brand of Jewish humor sometimes dictates, it’s sometimes the arresting detail or an off-kilter aside that makes it all work, not necessarily the well-meaning dash at proving the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St.
8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Through Sept. 2. Tickets $25-$30.