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Josh Kornbluth seems smart enough, and he’s got a pretty engaging sense of irony, and sure, there’s something amusing about a guy who, having been raised in Manhattan by hippie communists, gets himself neck-deep in shit with the IRS. So why isn’t Love and Taxes a two-hour laff riot?
Well, because it’s two hours, to start with. Not content with the red-papa comedy and the holistic-tax-practitioner comedy and the I’ll–sign–anything–bearing–a–“Sign here”–tab comedy, Kornbluth lards his monologue with dubiously funny bits about overpressurized oboists and a girlfriend’s inability to turn left while driving and a corporate tax lawyer so white he reflects “perhaps 30 percent more light than actually hit him.” The script, to put it mildly, would benefit from a strict audit.
Another problem is that the show’s come-on doesn’t inhabit the same emotional territory as its payoff. On the surface, Love and Taxes is the tale of a counterculture fuckup who, having failed to file his taxes for the better part of a decade, stumbles into professional success, personal happiness, and financial ruin all at roughly the same time. IRS envelopes go unopened “out of superstition”; wage checks get garnished; contracts with seemingly helpful accountants turn out to contain clauses so predatory they’d make a revenuer blush. Underneath the tax-law cracks and wacky-character sketches and spiraling-mishap scenarios, the show turns out to be about a guy struggling to emerge from the shadow of the father he idealized. But, though the last few lines tie that psychological package up neatly enough, Kornbluth weaves so many underdeveloped ideas and undercharacterized individuals into the narrative’s fabric that the audience often loses sight of that crucial paternal thread.
Kornbluth’s dad, about whom Theater J audiences learned more than a little in Red Diaper Baby four seasons ago, was a hero to his son, but an apparently feckless one. “It was almost as if Dad and I had our own country,” Kornbluth rhapsodizes in Taxes, “almost as if we were our own, like, Floating Socialist Republic of Kornbluthia. And everything inside that world was so graceful!…My father never stepped onto a curb—he would leap onto the curb. And Dad would never step off of a curb—he would leap off the curb….And in the subway Dad would leap over the turnstile—and I would slide gracefully under the turnstile.” Kornbluth’s mom was likewise cavalier about such things as bus fares and financial-aid forms; she quit her job the year before our hero applied to Princeton, he tells us, and swore (falsely) that her income was his only support.
So there you have it: The people who taught Kornbluth about the system’s responsibility to the people didn’t have a terribly strong sense of their own responsibility to the system. What our hero learns, after several aimless decades devoted to dodging the Man, is that “I am the Man”—or, as an unlikely IRS-veteran hero puts it, that ducking obligations doesn’t absolve a guy of them: “Anyone can criticize the system. Anyone! The art is in making it better….You don’t think the tax burden is distributed fairly? You don’t like how the money is spent? Then you change your elected representatives! That is on you, Mr. Kornbluth.” Having internalized that stream of sociopolitical revenue, our Josh is able (with an assist from a helpful tech-billionaire fan) to solve his financial problems and sort out his emotional issues as well, and all ends tidily.
What Kornbluth has created out of his parents’ ideological inconsistencies and his own fiscal irresponsibilities seems substantial enough (and structurally sound, too) once the lights have come up and the audience is filing out. But there are so many slack spots along the way—lots of the civil-society jokes that must’ve been funny in California just seem obvious here in Tax and Spend Central, and Kornbluth is more engaging on the page than in his basically awkward person. Love and Taxes ends up feeling like not much more than a write-off.
There’s a lot I could say about the Landless Theatre Company’s late-night production of Quills at the District of Columbia Arts Center, but we’re learning lessons from our parents this week, and my mama was big on that “If you can’t say anything nice…” rule. So: It’s ambitious. No doubt everyone’s trying very hard. And lead actor Doug Sanford has no discernible body fat. Also a genuinely impressive tattoo.
Sanford, who’s the imprisoned Marquis de Sade in Doug Wright’s taut retelling of that button-pushing author’s final days at the Charenton asylum, comes at his part with the kind of nerve and charisma you hope for in a bare-bones production in a black-box space, and director Julia Bilek Hyland comes up with several apt visual compositions to punctuate the script’s several climaxes. Wright’s script, which describes the moral corruption and self-destruction of the prison warden and priest who set out to protect their society from de Sade’s literary depravities, deftly mixes horror and humor and acute psychological observation.
And Hyland’s cast, which appears to have rehearsed in six or eight different cities, proves every bit as deft at unmixing them. There, now, that sounded nice. Kinda. OK, not really. But I tried very hard. CP