“Every other founding father gets to grow old.” It’s true, what Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in his Broadway hit about that guy – you know, the one who was the U.S.’s first Secretary of the Treasury and so much more. One founding father who doesn’t appear in Hamilton is Benjamin Franklin, the nation’s great 18th-century Renaissance man. L’Amour à Passy, a new play by and starring GW Reed, depicts the 70-year-old Franklin in France in 1777-78.
Benjamin Franklin and the French Aristocracy
Franklin was part of the delegation sent across the Atlantic during the Revolutionary War to try to negotiate a treaty between the fledgling United States and France. While in Paris and environs he became enormously popular, including with women of the nobility. In L’Amour à Passy Reed traces aspects of Franklin’s long relationship with Mme. Hardancourt Brillon, telescoping years of friendship into a period of months. The play is not a long one. It is, however, long enough to try our patience with this version of Benjamin Franklin.
Addressing us at the start to set the scene, Reed’s Franklin seems charming enough. But the play goes on to plunge into the man’s dislikable side, so much so that we hardly get to see what draws Hardancourt to him. Half the time he’s complaining about his ailments; the other half he’s demonstrating his ardent love by attempting to sexually assault her. As he woos her repeatedly and, well, just plain ickily, she, in a bravura performance by Musa Gurnis, adopts the old man as her new “Papa.” What we don’t see is the counterweight, the wise, charming, good side of Franklin that would make a person put up with all that obnoxious behavior.
Yes, times were different. Yes, women had fewer choices and depended more on men. But this friendship, as here depicted from Hardancourt’s point of view and as, presumably, it went in real life, was a true one. Gurnis turns in a fully realized and utterly convincing portrait of a woman whose transactional marriage offers no companionship, who has lost her beloved father and turns to a celebrated guest for stimulation, solace and fatherly comfort. Whether celebrating the success of Franklin’s diplomatic mission, coquettishly allowing him a quick kiss on the lips, or smarting when he transfers his attention to another female aristocrat, her thoughts and feelings play out on Gurnis’s face, in her body language, and in her words.
A Player Without Animal Magnetism?
Playwright Reed and director Manfred Bormann make effective use of the dynamics around some of the physical nexuses of the relationship: games of chess, a bath, a champagne toast. The production’s most powerful scene involves one of Franz Mesmer’s then-trendy “animal magnetism” treatments, whose results reveal further depths in Gurnis’s Hardancourt. The episode doesn’t seem much connected to what went before, though, nor does much of Act II; mayhap Reed has done more telescoping of history than he could comfortably fit.
Every founding father, however old he grew, deserves to have his story told, told again, reinterpreted by new generations with evolving mores. Today’s perspective stresses that Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders. John Adams, we are reminded uncomfortably, became something of a royalist. Hamilton’s flaws included a tragic one. As for Benjamin Franklin, if he was a player with the ladies, let it be known and shown – but preferably in the context of the man’s multidimensional brilliance and fascinating life. L’Amour à Passy doesn’t measure up on that score. It does treat us to a multidimensional Mme. Hardancourt Brillion, however, and that’s something to be grateful for.
L’Amour à Passy runs through Nov. 20 at A.R.T./New York Theatres. Tickets are available online.