Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father, Printer, Man of Science, Electrocutee, Gout sufferer (having nothing to do with his electrocutitis—most likely) grandfather of Benny (legitimately) and Temple (not-so-much), husband to Debbie, wife of politics, father to Sally, the untimely Frankie (having passed at the age of four from smallpox) along with best friend AND father to the illegitimate Billy (William) Franklin.
As I enter the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre on Melrose diagonally across from Paramount Pictures, I am impressed by its plush intimacy and even more astounded that seats have been reserved for my guest and yours truly. The theatre is up the stairs and towards the west of a large room adjacent to its cozy lobby, reminiscent of an inviting living room adorned with artwork, past performance posters, spaces on which to sit, and a table housing wine and refreshments with a mere donation canister as the “snack salesperson”. All in all, altogether non-automadely automated affording the theatergoer much autonomy in his/her food and beverage choices, payment, and procurement.
The entrance to the steps up to the theatre is equally economically manned as a piece of manila-colored tape indicates to audience members, and reviewers alike, that admittance is nigh but not permitted at this time, almost as if to say (a la the Kramer’s-fascination-with-police-tape ‘Seinfeld’ episode) “Back off Son, there’s nuthin’ to see here…”—yet!
The theatre is just as plush and inviting as the living-roomed lobby, sporting cushy red fold-out chairs and equally soft similarly colored carpeting, along with regal green bunting.
Just entering the performance venue, one feels as though one has gone back in time, (despite the roaring motorcycles and buses that zoom by on Melrose Ave. in the twenty first century below.) The set, designed by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, is as authentic as if one were touring the subject’s vintage colonial house in Philadelphia wherein all rooms are recreated to a T; the kind of chambers you remember regarding in awe and enchantment as a child as though you were witness to a larger than life dollhouse; delighting in candelabras the likes of which flicker bulbs were used to denote fire, rather than the L.E.D. imposters of the present day. (As an aside, I wonder what, if anything, Franklin would think of any faux and contemporary candle impression this day in age? Redundant perhaps…)
Our B. Franklin, actor Robert Lesko and play’s author, enters. During the course of our roughly two hour journey together he will discuss everything from his political initiatives and endeavors to his love of the ladies, his Opium addiction to his gout in the most entertaining, almost grandfatherly of fashions. But the crux of the piece will center around his relationship and inevitable rift with his best friend and first-born “bastard” son Billy (William) Franklin.
The lights come up on our 82-year-old Founding Father somewhat in medias res scoffing at his “enemies” and their gossip pertaining to his political travels along with his perpetual delight in “the ladies”: his “erotum” as he will sometimes refer to his uh…romantic adventures openly and shamelessly. “I have loved them for all their various parts but none has been scandalous!”
He lets us into his world a little more intimately as he briefly attends to his “toilette”: “Myrtle Wax soap, the finest for shaving!” (And if that isn’t apt product placement well then I just don’t know what is!—Aside from the fact that none of us will ever know where or when to procure such a ware…devoid of any sort of time machinery of course…and unless Franklin will divulge that he has invented such a contraption, then…well…our skin will just have to suffer, I guess…~sigh~)
His chair sports a wooden–for lack of a better word–“leg holder” (coined by yours truly) to assist in alleviating the discomfort of his gout which he will expound upon (almost good naturedly at times in the most refreshing of fashions) along with his stones. (Oh yes, he has “stones”). He will disclose, much to his doctor’s chagrin, that he drinks no water, “only wine; making use daily of the exercise and the dumbbell.”
He will eventually, in the midst of praising his beloved opium tea, make the most god awful, well acted noises of discomfort the likes of which I’ve never heard, until he finally takes his first sip. “I am of an age where death by opium is the least of my worries,” he will good-humoredly admit telling his doctor.
Franklin will fondly recount the birth of his first son William or “Billy” as he will call him, the subsequent birth of son Frankie along with his tragic and untimely death at the age of four by smallpox, and the birth of his youngest daughter Sally.
He will expound upon his scientific escapades by recounting the night he and Billy “attempted to electrocute a turkey for dinner and succeeded in electrocuting ourselves!—The turkey was uneatable!”
He will school us on the schooling of Billy regarding “the ladies” particularly as a proper prophylactic end product so as to prevent proliferated inappropriate pregnancies. “Older women have much more knowledge and better conversation… As they age from the head down placing a basket over the head and ignoring everything above the girdle, it is impossible to tell and old woman from a young woman.” Oh ho ho! Really Ben…REALLY?!?!
Franklin will delight in his related fame in France via the hands of his political work at the age of seventy as he will declare his face to be on every given sales ware—even the chamber pot for which he will remark, “I’m as famous as the man on the moon!” (Get it…get it…? “Moon?”)
The heart of the story will hinge on Franklin’s relationship with Billy and their eventual political rift.
Franklin will rail against the “Crown’s corrosive attitude towards the colonies”: “…America was a cow to be milked rather than cared for!” He will also expound upon his “strident advoca[cy] of complete amputation from Britain,” as he implores of Billy, “I am asking you to be a Patriot, a citizen, to live as a free man who has a vote on every aspect of his life!—We will be a great team in helping to form this new country!”
To this, Billy can only respond, “I could have you arrested, tried and hanged based on what you have just said.”
All in all, a most harrowing and profound, nearly irreparable debate between father and son!
I have a most splendid evening, despite the 5.1 magnitude earthquake I didn’t feel, that allegedly rocked the theatre at the beginning of Act II! What’s more, the coffee at intermission is unusually good: Mellow rather than bitter. I will also invariably find myself asking everyone in the lobby if they don’t think that “Billy Franklin” sounds like the name of a soul singer. Most, if not all, will agree to pensive laughter—and, as an afterthought, a few days later, I will muse upon the notion that the name “Frankie Franklin” sounds like a short stop for the Dodgers!
What I am most impressed by, however, is the performance and the man behind the words. During the course of this, 100 minute presentation, I will come to know Ben Franklin as, more or less of a kindly grandfatherly figure; anything seemingly inappropriate he may say or do, merely stemming from his passion for life, its potential workability and a product of his time rather than anything egotistical, sexist or prejudicial. At certain instances, I will catch a glimpse of his smile and Lesko will fondly remind me slightly of the venerable, likeable and talented Barnard Hughes.
I will speak to Mr. Lesko at the post opening night reception in the homey, living roomish lobby thereafter and he will inform me that this Bjorn Johnson directed, Laura Hill/Georgetown Productions LLC produced play, has been a work ten years in the making, hundreds of pages of which had to be cut incumbent upon the assistance of his dramaturg Kathleen Menzie Lesko who also doubles as his wife. It is evident that his passion for this historical figure and his life stories is most profound. As Lesko will quote in the play, “Better to write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” In penning this piece, Lesko has done the former and in prompting me to write about it, also accomplished the latter to very fine and stellar results indeed!
B. Franklin runs until April 27th at the Stephanie Feury Theatre, 5636 Melrose Avenue (at Larchmont), Los Angeles, CA 90038. Regular show times are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm.
Reservations: (800) 838-3006
Online Ticketing: www.bfranklin.brownpapertickets.com