As someone who runs a volunteer income tax assistance program for performing artists, I can certainly relate to the horrifying scenario conjured up in monologuist Josh Kornbluth's newest autobiographical solo piece, "Love & Taxes" now running at Seattle's Intiman Theatre. Having witnessed first-hand the dire consequences exemplified by the kind of neglectful behavior he describes to hilarious effect, I was fully prepared to cringe in recognition at his Sisyphean struggle, but I'm also happy to report that humorous intent aside, Mr. Kornbluth also uses his personal tribulations as a testament to staying focused on what really matters in life: love, personal commitment and social responsibility.
Growing up the progeny of avouched Communists (as chronicled in his earlier work, "Red Diaper Baby"), Kornbluth's parents instilled in him a decidedly negative view of government bureaucracies, as personified by that omnipresent bugbear of the counter-culture, "The Man". So, for seven years (ironically, while working as a temp for a high-powered San Francisco corporate tax attorney - the subject of his 1990 stage play and 2001 feature film, "Haiku Tunnel") Kornbluth simply "dropped out" by neglecting to pay his income taxes. Eventually urged by his incredulous boss to seek help, he retains the services of a touchy-feely New Age financial advisor who gets him back into the system, but who also sets him on a nightmarish path that eventually results in an $80,000 debt that puts him on the verge of bankruptcy, threatens to scuttle the independent film he's directing, and severely strains relations with his now pregnant girlfriend. The story of how he gets into and eventually out of this mess (with the timely aid of a deus ex machina like dot.com admirer) provides for a hilarious depiction of one little guy's struggle to maintain his priorities in a deliberately confusing world of befuddling forms, obscure legal precedents, devious advisors, and intransigent bureaucrats.
Using only a small desk, a laptop computer, and a two-volume (presumably abridged) edition of the United States Tax Code, Kornbluth proves a mesmerizing, yet self-deprecating performer, as he weaves together stories of his encounters with his nefarious financial advisor, Hollywood studio executives who question whether the depiction of his father in a spec script, "really needs to be a Communist", a new romance with a woman who adamantly refuses to make right-hand turns while driving, and an eye-opening meeting with a former IRS Director. Kornbluth's stage persona is completely engaging throughout his two hour piece, and he comes across as a sort of nebbishy Everyman; bald and bespectacled, his round, expressive face communicating dread, hesitancy and regret with a sort of staccato twitchiness each time he attempts to confront his responsibilities or is forced by circumstances into making some long put off decision. There's a wide-eyed sense of incredulity at each new indignity, but frequently accompanied by a confessional admission of his own complicity in shaping his circumstances.
Under David Dower's light-handed direction, Kornbluth gradually moves from the dreadfully ridiculous to the sublime, as each new insight and revelation brings him closer to an understanding of the true, intended purpose of our tax system. Dower has shaped the performance to allow Kornbluth to explain (often in excruciatingly funny detail) his actions, but doesn't let him wriggle off the hook by making excuses for his behavior, so that by the end of the piece he's grown from a post-adolescent shirking his responsibilities (a "pisher" as his Yiddish-spouting mother would say), to a veritable "mensch" ready to face his responsibilities: to the woman he loves, to his unborn child - and just as importantly - to his fellow citizens by shouldering his fair share of the burden for maintaining the public institutions and amenities that sustain our democratic culture.
With that in mind, Kornbluth under Intiman's sponsorship has scheduled a series of post-performance talkbacks with government representatives and prominent tax experts, including William H. Gates, Sr., author of "Wealth And Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes". Although his father might not have approved of "the system" Kornbluth has chosen to enter, he certainly would have been proud of his son's continued commitment to social equity and the common good.
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