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Josh Kornbluth leaves us helpless with laughter and pleasantly lost

Wednesday, Jul 9 2003
Anyone who thinks he has IRS trouble should go see Love & Taxes. Josh Kornbluth cultivates a schlemiel persona -- a shambling perpetual loser with nebbishy glasses and thinning hair -- for the benefit of the rest of us who might incline toward self-pity.

As a young man, Kornbluth failed to pay his taxes for seven years. This lapse was the result of some habits instilled by his communist dad, but not any deeply held political notions, because while he was failing to pay his taxes Kornbluth also worked as a low-paid flunky for an expert on corporate tax law.

This in-betweenness is typical for Kornbluth. His fans (or readers of his book, Red-Diaper Baby) know all about his conflicted love for his Marxist parents and his childhood in what he calls "our own floating Socialist Republic of Kornbluthia." His performances hew so close to autobiography that it can be tough to distinguish between Josh the San Francisco slacker and Kornbluth the accomplished artist. In the current show he mentions Haiku Tunnel, his 1990 show at the Marsh, and details the tortuous path it followed from small fringe theater to independent film screened at Sundance in 2001 (and released by Sony Pictures). The obscure title, Kornbluth says, was meant to keep his tax-lawyer boss from realizing that the show was really about him -- about Kornbluth working for the Man, despite being "nominally against capitalism." Kornbluth figured he could tack postcards for a show called Haiku Tunnel to the walls of his cubicle without having to worry that the lawyer, Bob, would even want to see it.

He was wrong. In Love & Taxes, Bob comes to Haiku Tunnel and learns that one of his most diligent employees is a seven-year tax evader. Instead of getting angry, he sends Josh to a personal tax attorney named Mo, who works out of a gleaming office high in downtown S.F. Mo is a "holistic" lawyer with a slick manner and a high-powered assistant; she's a therapist as well as an accountant, and sits Josh down for a talking cure. He tells her all about his childhood and his dad's patchy relationship with the IRS. (Josh's "first tax memory" involves his father struggling to file on a beautiful spring day, then deciding not to let the Man's bullshit rob him of time with the family.) This talking-cure framework, fake as it may be, works beautifully. Kornbluth has a talent for careening down wild digressive alleys until the audience is helpless with laughter but totally lost, and the sessions with Mo bring things gracefully back to the point.

And the point is always numeric: By Mo's reckoning, Josh owes the IRS $27,000.

His luck improves as soon as he commits to paying off this debt. He starts performing in New York; he meets a groupie named Sara who will become his wife; a Hollywood studio options Haiku Tunnel and hires him to write the screenplay. He has a life and an income. Because it's a Josh Kornbluth show, however, good luck is only an omen of calamity. No one in Hollywood seems to like the screenplay -- one executive asks if his father "needs" to be a communist -- and soon his younger brother Jacob convinces him to bail out. They can make the movie themselves, says Jacob. Screw Hollywood. Josh refuses to change the screenplay, fails to sell it, and in the meantime his tax debt (plus fees for Mo) has mounted to about $80,000.

It can be cleansing to watch another person screw up so royally. Josh's tax debt threatens his marriage, his indie-film project, his prospect of children. The predicament makes him appreciate his father's sense of failure, which Josh didn't understand at 18, when he needed an oboe scholarship to go to Princeton. "Even for my dad -- the communist, the hippie, the fuckup," he says, " -- even for my dad, his dream was to become a provider."

So Love & Taxes is essentially about fathers and sons: The comedy and the horror grow out of the "taxes" part of the show, but the quiet, underlying focus is love. Kornbluth and his collaborator, David Dower (who co-writes and directs), braid their themes tightly in act one, using the Mo therapy sessions. In act two, when Mo goes away, the show sprawls a bit, ending with a coda about Josh's father that comes out of nowhere. But Kornbluth is never less than hilarious. He puts so much hapless, innocent energy into his story the audience will tag along even when it has no idea where he's going.

Marco D'Ambrosio's incidental music and digital background slides by Flying Moose Pictures support Kornbluth onstage. The slides and music and lights (by Jim Cave) are unobtrusive and set a simple mood. Love & Taxes may resemble a big, shambling guy just describing his life; in fact, it's a well-crafted illusion.

John Cheever wrote a self-deprecating introduction to his collected stories that reminds me of Kornbluth's show. Storytellers tend to be open books, he argues; they can't hide their flaws or their lack of sophistication. Kornbluth understands this contention and plays with it. He seems to agree with Cheever that any honest accounting of a writer's early work "will be a naked history of one's struggle to receive an education in economics and love." In Kornbluth's case, though, it's also screamingly funny.


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