When I was a kid, my mother worked for Michigan’s senior senator. Her specialty was helping out constituents who’d had some sort of run-in with the IRS — shopkeepers who came to work in the morning to find their doors padlocked, people who’d had their wages garnisheed, small businesses slapped with liens. Our guest bathroom was graced by an ugly clock printed with pictures of different kosher meats — a gift from a grateful importer my mother had helped. We once took a family vacation to Washington, DC, so mom could testify in front of a Senate subcommittee on behalf of legislation protecting people against IRS depredations. Tax time in our house began about a month after the previous year’s filing date and had a certain festive air, as my mother pored over receipts and poked at her calculator, gleefully working every last legal angle. Instead of Monopoly we played a board game called “Screw the IRS.”
Which must be part of the reason Josh Kornbluth seems so familiar. His deeply Communist family played real Monopoly but, as he explained to a hapless classmate in 1992’s Red Diaper Baby, playing was always difficult. “Everyone always wants to go to jail, to make a political statement. Grandma would go into jail and wage a hunger strike; she’d refuse to come out: ‘Free Parking for Everyone!’ Grandpa would nationalize the railroads. I would play by the rules; I would win Park Place and put up some hotels, some buildings. Then at some point I would have to leave the room and go make a wee-wee. While I was away, my mom would organize the tenants on Park Place into a rent strike. Little tokens would be circling my property! When I came back, my grandma would be yelling at me, ‘Scab! Scab! Scab!'”
Kornbluth allows audiences who go for intelligent comedy that blends hilarious self-examination with wry insight into the state of American politics, and tales of the vagaries of love between proudly neurotic people, to rejoice and throw off the chains of their mindless Hollywood oppression. The man who found a way to turn failing a Princeton math class and forgetting to mail 85 important letters for his lawyer boss into off-Broadway fame and a couple of independent films is back with his most polished and far-reaching work yet, the stunningly funny Love and Taxes. Developed in collaboration with David Dower of San Francisco’s Z Space Studio, Love and Taxes just finished a well-received run at the Magic Theatre, and now it’s at the Rep through September 14, complete with free “Tax Talkbacks” between the Sunday performances.
Any monologuist can talk about sex, but how many are gutsy enough to break the last taboo and talk about money? It doesn’t sound like it would be funny or even particularly interesting, listening to a man explain how an initial tax debt of $27,000 ballooned to $80,000 as a result of inattention and fear. It sounds like something truly squirm-producing. But then that is Kornbluth’s gift: He takes the things all of us have done or might do — the things we’re not proud of — and gently defuses them with impeccable comic timing.
When Kornbluth’s old tax-lawyer boss (a “virile, passionate practitioner of the taxation arts”) discovered that his employee hadn’t filed in seven years, he sent him to the “holistic tax practice” of Mo Glass. The latter, a sort of New-Agey tax lawyer who suggested Kornbluth regress to his “earliest tax memory,” agreed to take the writer on and get him “into the system.”
Which she did, and for a while things went great. Once Kornbluth filed, things really did seem to change for the better. He found himself in demand as a performer. He felt healthier. “Stray dogs followed me through the Mission,” he tells us. And then a woman who had seen his show so often that she would cue him from the audience when he dropped a line approached him after a show. They went out to a cafe and Kornbluth fell in love when his new groupie bemoaned an improper use of quotation marks. “She’s beautiful, she’s neurotic, and she cares about punctuation!” Kornbluth was approached by two major studios to write a screenplay based on Red Diaper Baby, and was put up in a Los Angeles bungalow for a couple of years.
During which time, in addition to piling up wadded drafts, he was also accumulating a doozy of a tax — and tax-lawyer — bill. Glass had told Kornbluth he wouldn’t have to pay her until he was rich and famous; as he explains, he has a problem with the word “until” — for him it serves as a period. Everything after the “until” just drops out. Which is how he suddenly found himself $27,000 in the hole, facing not only the prospect of bankruptcy and a girlfriend anxious to get started on babies, but a younger brother eager to collaborate on an independent film with no backers.
Love and Taxes gives us an opportunity to reconnect with characters we’ve met in Kornbluth’s other work. Bob Shelby is back, fuller and more sympathetic than he was in Haiku Tunnel. Younger brother Jacob, six years old at the end of Red Diaper Baby, is here as an adult with his “Jake energy” (“I’m not going to crawl,” he is alleged to have thought as a baby, “crawling’s for suckers!”). But most poignantly, Paul is back: Josh’s larger-than-life dad, he of the orange jumpsuit and the clouds of talcum powder, the singing Communist who couldn’t hold down a teaching job because he always had to fight the Man. Kornbluth talks about his relationship with his father as something happening within a snow globe, the two of them skipping along in their own private “floating Socialist Republic of Kornbluthia.” As he explains in the afterword to the Mercury House edition of Red Diaper Baby, “Reflecting on [Spalding] Gray’s work, I realized what a large part of my soul was filled with my father’s stories — stories told by my father and also, even before his own lips were stilled, stories I told about him. I remember saying to some woman, around that time, that my father was the most interesting thing about me, and her telling me that that was a sad thing to say, and me thinking her wrong as could be. I guess, looking back on it, that I set out to prove my point somehow.”
It’s not just Kornbluth’s delivery — although seeing him do his monologues live is even better than reading them — his language is hysterical. He describes his boss as “so white, he was reflecting perhaps 30 percent more light than was hitting him.” And he gets in his dig at the Hollywood machine. “Does your father have to be a Communist?” the studio asks, and Kornbluth worries that Arnold Schwarzenegger might get cast as his dad. Kornbluth pokes fun at the popularity of self-help books when he tells us that his girlfriend has moved from reading “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” to “What to Expect When You’re About to Marry a Deadbeat.” And for the longest time, he tells us, he thought he was paying taxes to both the feds and the Franchesi family (the State Franchise Tax Board).
Like some of Kornbluth’s earlier works, Love and Taxes features a perfectly synchronized series of payoffs that build on each other like some fanciful and ultimately satisfying cake. But structurally this one’s the best yet, with a clever device for transitioning between the frenetic present and the remembered past. It also reveals that Kornbluth has really matured — there are ideas about responsibility here that saw their seeds in Red Diaper Baby, but are finally coming to fruition in the story of a man trying to make good for his incipient family. He’s still working his neuroses for every comic drop, but — appropriately enough for a man whose parents raised him to foment the revolution — he’s also dealing with much bigger themes, like what happens to the working poor and how citizens can and must take more of an active role in our own governance.