L’Amour a Passy – A Platonic Love Story That May Have Changed History

Having just signed the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin arrived in 1777 Paris as “Minister Plenipotentiary”/Ambassador to France. He was tasked with inaugurating a treaty between the two countries and securing a loan for an America desperate for supplies and support. It was French help that cinched victory over British forces in Saratoga the next year and at Yorktown after that. The statesman was liked, respected, and feted by French society, but his job was difficult.

GW Reed as Benjamin Franklin, Musa Gurnis as Madame Brillon

The friendship between Franklin and, half his age. Madame Hardancourt Brillon, lasted a lifetime, in correspondence after he prudently stopped seeing her and afterwards when he returned to the states. There’s no indication they were lovers. Brillon was a well known keyboardist and composer. This play takes place over eight months telescoped for theatrical effect. Despite the incursion of politics, it’s a love story.

We open in a park. Madame Brillon seems to be dancing to an unheard tune. She is, in fact composing. The character unnecessarily exits, then returns in search of a missing brooch. (It would have been more fluid to let her realize it was missing, thus encountering Franklin without a break.) Also strolling, Franklin is immediately smitten by the stranger’s beauty and grace. He helps her find the jewelry by reading the ground like an Indian tracker. (They likely met at a formal salon.) Franklin’s reputation precedes him. Madame invites the statesman to an evening in his honor.

In the course of the play, part historical fact, part embellishment, Franklin intermittently speaks to the audience. (Madame addresses us only once wink-wink.) It doesn’t work. This may be because of acting. While all French is not directly translated, its meaning is crystal clear.

The two begin an affectionate relationship, meeting (as dramatized) twice a week outside salons. She calls him “papa”; he calls her “my beautiful girl.” Madame’s husband is having a blatant affair. Franklin is at this point a widower. Her new friend suggests she leave Jacques Brillon not perhaps fully realizing the consequences.

GW Reed as Benjamin Franklin, Musa Gurnis as Madame Brillon

She enlists his help in ridding her of the competition and upon request of the queen (conjectured), gets him to join a group investigating Anton Mesmer who claimed to have discovered a “universal fluid” manipulation – early hypnosis – which could be used to treat almost all diseases (This is factual.) Descriptions of Mesmer’s methods don’t alas align with what we later see Franklin try on Brillon at her overwrought request.

In turn, she helps put her friend in front of those he needs to further his agenda. It’s clear she knows more about what’s going on politically than has been made public. They’re sympathetically and intellectually compatible – playing chess, talking, walking. She’s solicitous about his health, he about her spirits. To the society woman, theirs is an amitié amoureuse, a deep, supportive friendship. She flirts as easily as breathing, but values just what they have. As portrayed, any man might be confused. Endless declarations and direct suggestions by Franklin follow. He even places a bet that might result in sex. Madame will sit on his knee but go no further. The play ends softly with correspondence.

GW Reed as Benjamin Franklin, Musa Gurnis as Madame Brillon

The liaison and its protagonists create an intriguing scenario, especially as we know much of it was actual. As written, Franklin shows us little of his multi-faceted personality beyond libidinous pursuit. Madame Brillon seems a better developed portrait. Still, the play is engaging. Were the actors better matched, reception might’ve been different.

Playwright GW Reed’s Franklin has no grace, no gravitas. We don’t believe this doddering old man (at 70) would have been capable of moving even awkwardly in French high society accomplishing what history recorded or that he could retain the attention of this vibrant woman.

Musa Gurnis, apparently a scholar and author in addition to thespian skills, is marvelous. Her French is perfect, her French-accented English as it might have been. Gurbis shows us a smart, feminine, patrician woman with an unsatisfactory marriage who basks in Franklin’s attention but draws a societal and religious line before adultery. What another actress might have made flighty, this one gives vulnerability and dignity.

Musa Gurnis as Madame Brillon

Director Manfred Bormann has staged skillfully with the glaring exceptions of Madame Brillon fainting face forward onto a chaise like a vaudeville routine and of Franklin’s being excessively handsy. Even with repeated expression of love and desire, this is ultimately an older statesman unlikely to cross a physical line so frequently.  

A painted scrim of hazy park and statue works splendidly. The only set credit I can find is Harry Feiner as “Advisor.” Props by Bria Dinkins include a fine chess set, real-looking food, an odd instrument for mesmerism we can only assume is correct.

Anthony Paul-Cavaretta has excelled with great looking, period and character-appropriate attire.

Photos by Jonathan Slaff

L’Amour a Passy by GW Reed
Directed by Manfred Bormann
Featuring Musa Gurnis and GW Reed
The Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street
Through November 20, 2022

About Alix Cohen (1400 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.