John Kolvenbach’s unabashedly romantic take on life is front and center once again in his latest play, Goldfish, now getting a superb World Premiere production at South Coast Repertory.

Like Kolvenbach’s Love Song, described here recently as a “hilarious, captivating, quirky, one-of-a-kind romantic comedy” and a “fresh look at the power of love to transform even the bleakest life,” Goldfish centers on the kind of young man not usually the hero of a love story.

Bookish 19-year-old Albert is leaving home for college and about to bid farewell to Leo, the father with whom he shares a small apartment.  Almost immediately we are made aware that something is not quite right in this household. Albert seems more concerned about how his father is going to do without him than his father does about Albert’s being out for first time on his own.  Albert has paid the next four months’ rent in advance. “The bills are going to come and you have to pay them,” he instructs Leo, and so son has put together for father a folder full of instructions on exactly which bills to pay and when.  He’s put his father on an allowance, something about which dear old Dad is none too pleased. “Chain me to the floor,” rants the middle-aged man.  “Put me in a diaper!”

Albert’s father is like a goldfish who “can’t be trusted” because “he will eat himself if he’s hungry,” and we soon understand why. Leo is a compulsive gambler entirely capable of using his son’s tuition money to feed his addition and there’s nothing Albert can do about it save remain tied to his father’s apron strings for life.

Still, a real life away from home beckons, though not a particularly exciting one. Friday nights find Albert studying in the school library, and on one of these Fridays he meets a fellow student named Lucy (or rather Lucy sees to it that she meets him).  She begins to pepper him with questions like “Why do you do all the reading and never say anything in class?” and “Why do you eat alone?”  “You ask a lot of personal questions,” remarks Albert, but when Lucy asks if he wants her to stop, he is unable to say yes.  The seeds of love have been planted and will soon bear fruit … if only the couple didn’t have parents to deal with.

Unlike Albert, Lucy comes from an affluent home, but one no more functional than his.  For example, Lucy’s prickly mother Margaret has an odd way with a compliment, telling her daughter “Look at you. I am flabbergasted by how beautiful I used to be.” Lucy’s father has long been out of the picture.  In fact, Margaret describes their marriage as “a momentary insanity” committed because “I listened to my parents.”  When Margaret figures out where Lucy’s sudden curiosity about her father is coming from (“You have a boyfriend!”), she immediately assumes that the young man in question must be a loser like Lucy’s dad was. “Tom lost his jobs and drank and cheated with neighbors” until she finally divorced the alcoholic bum.  How could Lucy’s beau be any different?

When Leo phones the Dean of Albert’s college to demand his money back, having gambled away the funds set aside for next semester’s tuition, the camel’s back (i.e. Albert’s) is broken, perhaps beyond repair. “I could kill you sometimes,” the brokenhearted (and broke) son spits out. “I could kill myself sometimes too,” is Leo’s resigned reply.

Will Albert be able to find happiness with Lucy when the only way to achieve it is by severing the threads which tie him to Leo? Will Lucy ever be able to convince her mother that not all men are alike, and that in Albert she has truly found her knight in shining armor? When indeed does family loyalty end and responsibility towards oneself begin?

These are the questions posed by Kolvenbach in Goldfish, the answers to which are never easy and always refreshingly unpredictable.

Kolvenbach’s voice is fresh and unique, his dialog and the characters he creates both quirky and oh so real.  When Lucy dozes off at lunch one day soon after their first meeting, Albert complains, “I can’t eat this.  You snore,” then appends his complaint with “I would like to hear that sound under other circumstances.”  (Hint, hint.) An embarrassed Lucy reveals to Albert, “When I tell my friends how my mother is, they think I’m lying.” Albert makes a list of Lucy’s imperfections, then reads it to her.  “One. Two. Three. Eight. Twenty-five.  Sixty-seven.” After each number, there is only silence.  How much more smitten could a young man be?

In his first Southland appearance, Tasso Feldman (Albert) makes the impressive kind of debut that could easily lead to stardom. Nerdy yet handsome, ordinary yet charismatic, his Albert wins not only Lucy’s heart but the audience’s as well. Behind a deceptively deadpan delivery, Feldman reveals an ocean’s worth of depth, his eyes giving away the acres of pain Albert holds inside.

As Lucy, Kate Rylie has the eccentric charm of a young Diane Keaton. Conor O’Farrell gives a rich, multilayered performance as Albert’s ne’er-do-well father. Joan McMurtrey does deliciously dry work as Margaret.

Director Loretta Greco is at the top of her game here, as are the designers who bring Goldfish to vivid life.  South Coast Rep’s budget allows scenic designer Myung Hee Cho to create a gorgeous, inventive set, with furniture and appliances sliding in and out in front of a black backdrop atop which a huge panel depicting branches and leaves changes with the seasons.  Alex Jaeger’s costumes and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting are equally fine.  Michael Hooker creates doors and doorknobs and locks that aren’t there…entirely with his sound design.

With Goldfish, as with Love Song before it, John Kolvenbach demonstrates the kind of talent and voice sure to make him (like South Coast Rep favorite and next-up Richard Greenberg) a playwright whose every new work is eagerly anticipated. Goldfish is an utterly charming and utterly wonderful treat.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
March 22, 2009
                                                       Photos: Henry DiRocco

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