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John Kolvenbach’s story isn’t all that different from that of any other talented, long-striving theater person: years of toil in relative obscurity, writing and producing play after play, earning some personal satisfaction, but nothing close to material gain.
Except for one very lucky break. Some seven years ago, Kolvenbach showed an old friend a new play, On an Average Day.The friend then showed it to a friend, and so on. Ultimately, it wound up in the hands of a theater producer who enlisted a couple of guys to star in the London premiere.
His plays have been produced in 15 countries, in theaters from Tel Aviv to Auckland. Theaters across his home country are also knocking at his door: There’s an upcoming world premiere at Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre Co., and this weekend, the world premiere of his latest play, Goldfish,debuts at South Coast Repertory.
“It all happened startlingly rapidly,” says the 42-year-old, Brooklyn-based Kolvenbach, who worked for nearly 15 years in theaters so far removed from Broadway they might as well have been in Newark. “It really was a stroke of lightning.”
Of course, Kolvenbach made his own luck. He wrote and produced plays constantly, even if those plays were done by his small circle of friends on sets filled with furniture from their respective apartments.
“We’d read plays in my kitchen, and then load up our furniture and take it to a rented theater. All we wanted was to sell enough tickets to rent the space the next weekend,” he says.
Most of Kolvenbach’s successful plays up to this point have been comedic dramas with an emphasis on comedy. Goldfish is a bit more dramatic and a lot quieter. “I’ve written a lot of plays where there hasn’t been a quiet moment,” he says. This one, he says, is more of an “iceberg” play, where only about 10 percent is actually visible, but “what is really happening is unspoken, beneath the surface.”
True to the form of most of his recent plays, Goldfish is small in scale but universal in impact. It’s an intimate, four-character story about a young couple who meet in college and fall in love, and then must grapple with complicated relationships with their parents before they can get truly serious with each other.
Not exactly Grapes of Wrath.But the deceptively pedestrian synopsis doesn’t capture the most intriguing part of Kolvenbach’s writing, whose spartan language reveals the intense complications of the speaker.
“There is a real precision to his writing; every word is placed carefully,” says John Glore, SCR’s associate artistic director. “It kind of comes off as naturalistic, but when it’s in the mouths of actors, it’s heightened and has a music all its own. He has a very deft way of capturing characters through nothing but their dialogue, which reminded me a bit of Sam Shepard.”
Kolvenbach points out that this play “takes place within a relationship, and the relationship dictates the sound, since a lot of what happens in relationships is unsaid.”
He admits that he’s not concerned with writing huge plays as much as “what it’s like to be alive and what it is to a human being. Goldfish is more about falling in love and what it is to leave one’s parents.”
In Goldfish,both Albert and Lucy are, to cop a phrase from Bruce Springsteen, born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past. Albert’s father married above his station, it ended disastrously, and he has developed a severe gambling problem. Lisa’s mother married far below her station, and her marriage also ended in ruins. Neither Albert nor Lisa knows their missing parent but still feels tied to them through the existing one. How they deal with forging their own identity while still relating to their parents, both absent and present, drives Goldfish to its poignant conclusion.
And, yes, a goldfish plays a central part, at least in the metaphor of the play. “The first living thing that many kids take care of is a goldfish they win at the fair,” Kolvenbach said. “But it’s also our first experience with mortality, since they always die 48 hours later.”
There’s a big life lesson in there somewhere; to find it in Goldfish, look in the silences between the words.
Goldfish at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., (714) 708-5500; www.scr.org. Opens Fri. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through April 5. $28-$64.
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