Career monologuer Josh Kornbluth opens Ben Franklin: Unplugged by claiming that he’s run out of autobiographical material to use in his dialogues.
Career monologuer Josh Kornbluth opens Ben Franklin: Unplugged by claiming that he’s run out of autobiographical material to use in his dialogues. Fortunately, Kornbluth wakes up one morning and realizes that he has more than a passing resemblance to Benjamin Franklin. He decides to take a shot at doing an autobiographical monologue based on someone else’s autobiography. This seems like a stretch, but Kornbluth pulls it off admirably.
The beginning of the show is a little slow: Kornbluth’s excursion to a bookstore to buy Franklin’s autobiography is dragged out unnecessarily, and he repeats a few jokes in conversation with his family. But the monologue picks up steam around the time that Kornbluth emerges dressed as Franklin.
Kornbluth makes light work of dissecting Franklin’s autobiography, walking the audience through his research and guiding the audience through Franklin’s life and psyche. He continues in his own tradition of autobiographical monologues by superimposing his own observations about his relationship with his father over Franklin’s complicated relationship with his Tory son. His own story takes a backseat to Franklin’s, though, and he uses Franklin’s story masterfully to explore larger themes.
It seems that Kornbluth is interested in the father-son dynamic first and in the way that individuals relate to history second. The dual narrative of Franklin’s life and of Kornbluth’s own, replete with insights about revolution and family, is effective and riveting, and is a sign that Kornbluth may be onto something big.
Ben Franklin: Unplugged is fairly unique, as far as monologues go. Kornbluth is pushing the boundaries of the form. The show’s opening—Kornbluth standing in the kitchen of his Berkeley studio apartment while talking about his mother as he speaks on the phone—seems to hint at a far more conventional monologue, and is more in line with Kornbluth’s usual autobiographical scripts. But Kornbluth steps outside of the box the minute he walks into a bookstore to pick up Franklin’s autobiography.
The play takes us to downtown Manhattan and includes a cast of side characters, all portrayed to great effect by Kornbluth. In a sense, what Kornbluth is doing is experimenting with the monologue form, and in a town where “experimental” is often used to describe theater that’s incomprehensible (or just absurd), it’s nice to see a skilled artist pushing the boundaries of his chosen form in a way that’s so accessible and fun to watch.
As Kornbluth chases what he calls “the edge of the page,” an exploration of the gaps in Franklin’s narrative (the famous kite experiment is notably omitted, and the American Revolution only merits a single page), he reveals an approach to understanding and interacting with the history that’s rarely talked about, much less on stage.