There’s a section in Josh Kornbluth’s new show wherein the veteran (but weirdly ageless) monologist, waxing on admiringly about Sheldon S. Wolin, notes his old Princeton political science prof’s capacity for turning a student’s half-baked ideas into $10 notions. It reminded me of a professor I knew who was adept at the same thing. I’ve forgotten the exact metaphor Kornbluth employs to describe this pedagogical magic act, but I used to liken it to pushing a battered old Dodge across the seminar table and having the professor transform it into a Rolls Royce before sending it gliding back with your name on the license plate.
Of course, as anyone who knows his style will attest, the same might be said of writer-performer Kornbluth or Citizen Josh, as his solo play premiering at the Magic Theatre has him. Kornbluth, though, works his similar magic with his own thoughts, the detritus of a quick but wandering mind: the memories, spontaneous associations, and clumsy social encounters of daily life. He manages to swirl these together, with plenty of humor, into a big, inquisitive stew, until they coalesce into a solution to the problem he has set for himself and his audience, whether it’s growing up in (and out of) a red diaper, negotiating the nightmare that is the federal tax system, or, in the present case, coming to terms with the meaning of democracy in the United States.
It’s in keeping with Kornbluth’s at once self-deprecating and knowing humor that this exploration of the American institution takes place on a stage efficiently made up to suggest a classroom. He and director-collaborator David Dower (along with production designer Alexander V. Nichols) proffer a short bookcase, an American flag on a freestanding pole, and a slide projector and screen. But Kornbluth stands there as teacher and student, we soon realize, and we’re merely along for the ride.
The spark sending him back to civics class comes from his frustrated disillusionment following the 2004 election, a response challenged by his Berkeley neighbor an old-school chum and political scientist as not in keeping with a democratic ethos. (You too may be wondering exactly how democracy fits into national elections these days. But as our guide suggests, for the purposes of this exercise, "Let’s just say it’s not passé.") Before giving up on democracy altogether, Kornbluth agrees to do some digging into the subject. (There’s a more fundamental incentive than saving face with his neighbor: Kornbluth’s son, while not a very detailed or developed character in the show, nonetheless provides his father with a certain critical perspective throughout. Fatherly instincts demand he do something to save the world his child will inherit.) The research sends him bouncing across a lot of time and territory, including his first year at Princeton, his graduation day four years later (when the desultory student did not officially graduate but rather began a 27-year incomplete that he finally decided to remedy by contacting senior thesis adviser Wolin), and even 1957 Little Rock, Ark.
In this last instance (a particularly well-written and engaging passage), he unpacks the image of the famous photograph depicting African American high school student Elizabeth Eckford one of the Little Rock Nine, who tried to enter a previously all-white school and the white woman spewing racial epithets behind her, one Hazel Bryan, whose democratic skills were none too desirable. Since Kornbluth catches himself "going Hazel" in a playground dispute (literally) with another Berkeley neighbor, this is also a self-effacing and humanizing reference that eschews simple dichotomies of good and evil in the name of the hard, imperfect work of talking to, rather than past, one another. (Much of Kornbluth’s monologue takes place, figuratively speaking, in Berkeley’s Ohlone Park, known as People’s Park Annex during the student protests of the late 1960s and still host to the lumpy lattice dome welded together there by protesters, which the unsuspecting Kornbluth uses as a cell phone reception platform and refers to in aesthetic horror as "the structure.")
It’s a bumpy ride, all said, for this self-fashioned Don Quixote of democracy. The first 15 minutes or so feel almost too neat, too presentational or precious. Then, as Kornbluth relates the story of his brother’s troubled beginning as an extremely premature newborn and his (by now famous) nonconformist father’s startling intervention to save the baby the performance moves suddenly to a new and altogether gripping register. Although it’s not entirely sustained afterward, the next hour proves an engaging one. At the same time, the show ends on an upbeat note of liberal defiance and optimism that is hard to credit in an era when even Wolin can write, in 2003, that "a kind of fascism is replacing our democracy." The show’s overt politics is less satisfying than the nuance and complexity that emerge from the more personal and idiosyncratic passages. Citizen Josh is at its most charming and compelling when the accent falls on the second half of that moniker. *
Through June 17
Tues.Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7 p.m.; $20$45
Magic Theatre, Sam Shepard Stage
Fort Mason Center, bldg. D
Marina at Laguna, SF