Josh Kornbluth decides not to order the calamari because, like its eight-legged cousin, the squid is so very, very smart.
With eyes brown, round as quarters and liquid as mercury, he peruses the menu in the restaurant at the Pierpont Inn and announces that cows, on the other hand, aren’t so smart. But they’re just such sweet, peacenik creatures.
“Cows are really nice,” I say, sipping my water.
“Oh, they really, really are.” (I, former farm girl, speak from experience.)
Oops. I’ve just sent Josh Kornbluth, the man who was required reading for one of my college classes and the lone star of the Rubicon Theatre Company’s current production, Ben Franklin: Unplugged, packing for a guilt trip. And I’m not even a vegetarian.
Thankfully, it’s more like a field trip than a lengthy stay in some grody guilt motel. Kornbluth — writer, actor, comedian, thinker, nicest guy I have ever interviewed — wants something low on carbs, perhaps a slab of meat and a salad. Chickens aren’t as sweet as cows, Kornbluth says, but they can be so very cute. He goes for the steak. It turns out filet mignon is the only cow on the menu this afternoon.
With the ordering over and done with, Kornbluth, who looks exactly like founding father Benjamin Franklin and yet nothing like him at all, turns his warm, engaging eyes on me. “I never have any idea what I’m going to do when I start a piece, except an idea,” says Kornbluth, who had an “aha!” moment one morning when, in the process of shaving, he wiped the steam from his mirror and realized he looks just like Ben Franklin. And so Ben Franklin: Unplugged, written in collaboration with director David Dower, was born.
“Even now, I don’t really know what the message is,” Kornbluth says of the one-man show. “It’s saying a lot of things, but it’s also asking a lot of things.”
Kornbluth sports the polished noggin, round granny glasses and long-ish fringe of hair sported by the guy on the $20 bill, but this Ben Franklin has just got to be funnier and more engaging than any stuffed shirt of yesteryear (no disrespect to the man who made history with a kite). As we wait for the filet mignon, we talk about many things — including his vegan 8-year-old son’s love of starches and how gross faux meat products usually are.
Kornbluth has so many interests, including, but not limited to, the mysteries of the human brain, sports and whether or not God exists, that it’s hard to remember we’re here to talk about his show.
Several minutes pass before the waitress returns to warn Kornbluth that his filet mignon will be wrapped in bacon. He raises his thick, black brows and grins an innocent, disarming grin. “That’s OK,” he says. But, as she walks away, it’s obvious that he’s pondering the I.Q. of the average swine. “Have you ever seen that movie, Babe?” he asks. “I love that movie.”
Hours later, I’m watching Kornbluth on center stage at the Rubicon. He is playing no one but himself and, having realized he’s the spitting image of Franklin, he’s embarked on a hilarious and poignant journey to find his Franklin. The show is chalk-full of anecdotes, history, hilarity and drama. It focuses primarily on Franklin’s relationship with his son, William, with whom he was estranged when political allegiances tore them apart.
This tale of discovery is heartbreaking and reveals a horny, rowdy, brilliant, prolific Franklin, a man hurt deeply by a son who was more loyal to England than he was to his own father. But the story is really one of parallels.
Kornbluth’s own father, who was a communist, died when Kornbluth was in college. The story unfolding on stage — a story that makes me laugh and then cry, in spite of myself — is about fathers and sons with different political affiliations and personal ideals. It’s about just how much Kornbluth misses his dad.
“I want to reach everybody very deeply, so that our lives are forever changed,” he’d said earlier, of his performances. “Well, maybe not forever.” He smiled. “Yeah, forever.”
As a small child, Kornbluth was partly raised by a nanny who made him sit still on a cushion for hours at a time and sometimes wouldn’t let him up to use the restroom. He had little social contact with the outside world until college. His need to connect is palpable, but, unlike what you might expect of someone so isolated, Kornbluth isn’t awkward. He’s charming and genuine, and curious about everything.
By sharing with audiences, he says, he gives them information and, via the reactions he inspires, they return that information, somehow changed. This is one way in which Kornbluth interprets the world and his own emotions. In that way, performing is about learning. “In a sense, I’m trying to figure myself out,” he says. “I want to entertain and I want to share.” He does that, a hundred fold, and rolls with the punches in the process.
I can’t help but laugh when I remember how, earlier that day, at the Pierpont Inn, the waitress asked Kornbluth if he wanted dessert.
“Only if it’s wrapped in bacon,” he said.