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John Kolvenbach plots the renewed rise of the middle class

The protagonist of 'Goldfish,' his play at South Coast Repertory, is a put-upon 19-year-old who dreams of triumph. What does this say about the author?

March 20, 2009|Mike Boehm

The protagonist of "Goldfish," the play by John Kolvenbach having its premiere tonight at South Coast Repertory, is an admirable, talented but beleaguered young man whose name, Albert Ledger, would sound a loud ding in any ear attuned to Hollywood.

But Kolvenbach's cultural antennae evidently don't pick up the frequencies that buzz with celebrity news and gossip.

"Heath Ledger? That did not occur to me," the earnest yet easygoing New Yorker says when his choice of a name comes up. "I don't know why his last name is Ledger. I just made it up . . . because it sounds cool. I like 'd-g' combinations."

No disrespect to the memory of Heath, but whatever stress he was under, it could not have been much worse than what 19-year-old Albert faces like a mensch. The kid has spent years being the adult in the family to his haplessly self-indulgent dad -- who repays him by trying to talk him out of enrolling at an elite college in Vermont, then gambling away the tuition money.

Something else is noteworthy about Albert: At this very interesting juncture in our socioeconomic history, this driven son of the lowest fringes of the middle class is an avowed class warrior. He fantasizes about parlaying his education into a position of power that will pay off in silent, psychic triumphs over the soft, pampered rich. "My revenge scenario," he calls it.

"I don't know what to say," Kolvenbach initially ventures when asked if he's written America's first drama of the post-meltdown era. "Yeah, some of the play has taken on a kind of accidental relevance, but it was written before the recession and all of that stuff."

As he thinks on it further, Kolvenbach, 43, finds a lot to say about how themes of American values and American loneliness have wound through his plays.

"Maybe it's from living so close to the financial district, where money is valued above all things. If it is about a kind of class warfare, then maybe it's about an attempt to restore merit and effort and sincerity to a higher place in the ranking of values."

For years, Kolvenbach has lived in the shadow of Wall Street, many of them spent earning his living by doing voice-overs for commercials while he tried to catch a break with a play script. He and his wife, Roanne, a jewelry designer, own a two-bedroom apartment and have two sons, ages 5 and 6. Kolvenbach says he is big on family, having grown up in a crowded, boisterous, loving household in the New York suburb of Mount Kisco, where he and his five sisters stretched their dad's income as an advertising man to the point where "we sort of clung to the edge of the middle class."

The communitarian, family-like aspects of theater have meant a lot to Kolvenbach. After majoring in political science and English at Middlebury College in Vermont, he spent a year on the road in a touring company that barnstormed the nation's high schools, performing "Much Ado About Nothing" and a musical adaptation of George Orwell's "Animal Farm."

"It's a vagabond, eat-in-diners, sleep-in-Motel-6s kind of life. It couldn't be more fun, and most of the people from that tour are still really close friends of mine. It makes a believer out of you."

He earned a graduate acting degree from Rutgers but concluded he was better suited to writing plays than performing in them. Onstage, he says, he'd think about where his hands and feet should go, "all those kinds of things which good actors never consider. They're just there."

His first play, "The Gravity of Means," was a do-it-yourself production that eventually made it to off-Broadway in 1999. It remains his only show produced in New York.

By 2002, though, London was calling. "On an Average Day," a two-character play about long-separated brothers who reunite in a dilapidated kitchen to battle over their past, wound up with Sonia Friedman, a leading West End producer. With Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan playing the brothers, critics were polarized. Some complained it was too much like Sam Shepard's "True West," but the tickets went fast, and Kolvenbach got to give up his day job voicing commercials.

"Love Song," more humorous, still full of people coping with isolation, premiered in 2006 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Again, Friedman mounted it in the West End -- to mixed reviews.

"Actors are drawn to his characters because they have layers," she said recently from London. "They aren't a mouthpiece for his intellectual thoughts; they are living, breathing [messed up] people. He writes with huge verve and spirit, and is very, very funny. I'm surprised he remains a secret in America."

While his influences, including Shepard, David Mamet and Harold Pinter, are blue ribbon, Friedman says she is waiting for a play "where this is the true Kolvenbach."

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