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Big 'Benjamin Franklin': A Stretch in Time

January 12, 2006 By:
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Ben Franklin … Jewish? What did he use to discover electricity - Yiddish kite?

"Well, he might have been Jewish. I've heard that his actual name was Moshe Ben Franklin," joshes Josh Kornbluth, Jewish himself and Franklin's avuncular avatar on stage.

Early to bed, early to rise - you still won't be able to put one over on this mirthful monologist, whose "Ben Franklin Unplugged" has been plugged into a key schedule spot for the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

PTC is presenting the one-man show with 1,000 anecdotes now through Jan. 21 at 1714 Delancey St., in celebration of Ben's 300th birthday bash this year. In fact, the company is offering a party for the penny-pinching patriarch after this coming Tuesday-night's performance.

What do you get the man who has everything - including history - on his side? A one-man show, of course.

But starting your East Coast tour in the city where the Founding Father found fame … well, isn't that a declaration of independence from common sense? (No. That was Tom Paine's gig.)

"There is trepidation aplenty," says Kornbluth. "I understand there's a Franklin on every corner of the city. But I'm not competing with the great Franklin impersonators."

After all, there must be 1,776 of them around the nation, but this Franklin mints his own way of looking at life. "Unplugged" unveils Franklin's relationship with his son, with whom he was at great odds. Even more, the play plops Kornbluth's own parents into the fray.

"Unplugged" has been heralded and touted as a sensation since West Coaster Kornbluth offered this San Francisco treat to audiences in his home city. It all reflects a moment of self-discovery. "It hadn't occurred to me to do this until one day I looked in the mirror and thought, you know, I look like Franklin."

Good thing he didn't see John Hancock. "No," he says, "then I would have had to practice my signature." Instead, Franklin's his signature role.

The actor knows from how Franklin felt, getting wigged out over arguments with his son, whose Tory tantrums taunted his more democratic dad.

Kornbluth had his own despair over disagreements with his parents. "Ben Franklin Unplugged!" says its founding writer, "is one of the few stage pieces about Ben Franklin where you have a mother-son conflict about Stalin."

Born into a Jewish home to parents who paraded their Communist Party affiliations with pride, Kornbluth - a "progressive; I know I believe in democracy" (that sigh of relief comes from Franklin himself) - still has some red tape to deal with at home. "I've wanted her to admit that Stalin was evil."

Nyet, says Mom of la crème de la Kremlin. But yes, say critics, this "Ben Franklin" makes a spectacle of itself in all the right ways. Ben and Josh "both share a love of applause."

It's in his constitution; Kornbluth's been doing one-man shows for what seems forever. But this one's different; with its focus on a colonial kingmaker and the writer's family, it's a stretch in time that saves fine moments from history.

As for Ben's own sense of Jewishness … well, that's the locus of a large exhibit now running at the National Museum of American Jewish History, just a penny's toss from the PTC production.

And as far as pennies are concerned … Is a penny saved still a penny earned?

"Well, not really. After all, by Communist standards, a penny saved should be a penny shared," quips Kornbluth, offering the Marx of a real - like Franklin - revolutionary thinker

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