Red Diaper kid does Franklin — Kornbluths revolutionary trip

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In his newest stagework-in-progress, "Ben Franklin: Unplugged," humorist Josh Kornbluth thought he had finally laid to rest the recurring theme of his work: communist-revolutionary Jewish father and son.

He was wrong.

"I was trying to get away from that in this piece. Enough, enough about me and my father," Kornbluth said in a recent interview. "And yet, I'm drawn to Franklin's relationship to his son. It's what I come from — my relationship with my father.

"I grew up being told I was going to lead the revolution. My upbringing was an extremely secular Jewish New York one. My reference point is East Seventh Street between [avenues] C and D. It's where I start from."

Regardless of Kornbluth's own upbringing, the relationship of William and Benjamin Franklin is at the very least, compelling. Consider that Franklin did not even protest when his son was jailed in one of the worst prisons in America and forbidden to attend his wife's funeral. And yet Franklin begins his autobiography with "Dear Son."

Kornbluth will delve into these historical and psychological dichotomies in his 80-minute piece "Ben Franklin: Unplugged," Saturday, Nov. 8 and Sunday, Nov. 9 at the Marin Jewish Community Center's Hoytt Theatre.

Kornbluth is best known for his solo pieces "Haiku Tunnel," "Moisture Seekers," "Red Diaper Baby, "Mathematics of Change" and "Josh Kornbluth's Daily World," which details his youth as the son of communists in New York.

He chose to focus on Benjamin Franklin because "I sort of look like him. That's it. That's why I started," he said, adding, "My Aunt Birdie got so excited. She said I could be another Hal Holbrook."

Kornbluth admits he is far from a historian, yet he was enthusiastic about the project and an opportunity to write a monologue that was not based on his own life.

He began his research "slowly. I read slowly and only when I eat." But his study prompted only more questions — mostly of how Kornbluth looked at his own identity.

"I began asking questions about who I am and my connection to America," he said. "My ancestors were in Russia during the American Revolution. They didn't come here until this century. And yet, I feel American. And I feel connected to the American Revolution.

"My father was a communist so I was always in favor of revolutions."

Ultimately, those questions led Kornbluth back to what he thought the most puzzling piece of Franklin's life: Why did William Franklin become his father's bitterest enemy and side with the British during the Revolution?

After nearly a year of working on the piece, Kornbluth, 38 and a new father himself, still isn't sure.

However, like any historian who adds his own biases to the subject he studies, Kornbluth has his own ideas about the break.

Kornbluth identifies William's need to create his own identity, abandoning his father's revolutionary politics and serving as the Loyalist royal governor of New Jersey. He also points to the contentious relationship between William and his stepmother, Deborah.

While Kornbluth focuses much of his attention on the relationship between father and son, he admits the elder Franklin experienced a larger tragedy. He didn't just lose his son. He lost his wife, who died in America while he remained in England for eight years trying to get the Stamp Act repealed.

Meanwhile in England, Franklin was treated as a second-class citizen because he was a colonist. He was further humiliated when accused of stealing a packet of letters from the royal governor of Massachusetts.

This "misfortune," Kornbluth contends, turned Franklin into a true revolutionary.

"Everything Franklin counted on flew away from him — including his son and the British Empire." His bad luck also created a rich, three-dimensional figure, however.

"There is this whole progression. Franklin seems like a great guy. First public schools. Lightning rods. First fire department. Franklin stove. Postmaster. `Poor Richard's Almanac,'" Kornbluth said. "Then you read about him and some of it just doesn't ring true. You can't get a fix on him."

So Kornbluth doesn't try. In "Unplugged," instead of dressing as Franklin and trying to be Franklin, Kornbluth is more of an observer, adding humorous insight to tragedy and talking to the audience "about how I feel about trying to be Ben Franklin.

"Perhaps there will be a moment on stage when I become Ben Franklin. It's what people expect," he said. Regardless, "I still sort of look like him."