SAN FRANCISCO — A balding, middle-aged guy standing alone on a stage describing his financial troubles with two hefty volumes of the U.S. Tax Code as his only props doesn’t sound like a scintillating night at the theater.
Yet Josh Kornbluth manages to weave his woes into an engrossing and humorous tale of redemption. “Love & Taxes,” Kornbluth’s one-man show based on his own experiences, chronicles how the erstwhile office temp fell in love while spiraling into a terrifying five-figure tax debt. Following its San Francisco premiere, “Love & Taxes” begins a run at New York City’s Bank Street Theater on December 4.
It’s not the first time Kornbluth, 44, has put his life on stage. The monologuist has been mining his life for material for years, and he seems to strike comic gold no matter where he digs.
He channeled his slide into despair as a temp at a San Francisco law firm into “Haiku Tunnel,” which opened in San Francisco in 1990. He and his brother, Jacob, later spun the monologue into an indie film that was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival and released by Sony Pictures Classics in 2001.
His complex relationship with his adoring but abrasive father, who used to thunder around their Manhattan apartment wearing only talcum powder, powered his 1992 off-Broadway show “Red Diaper Baby” — adapted this year into a movie by the Sundance Channel. “My father, Paul Kornbluth, was a communist,” Kornbluth says in the show’s opening lines. “He believed there was going to be a violent Ccommunist revolution in this country — and that I was going to lead it. Just so you can get a sense of the pressure.”
And his disastrous experience in freshman math at Princeton University offered rich fodder for his play “The Mathematics of Change,” which premiered in San Francisco in 1993. “It turns out college students all over the state were dying to see someone reliving flunking calculus,” Kornbluth says in “Love & Taxes,” reflecting on his earlier show.
While Kornbluth found success with his shows, this success ultimately — in an ironic twist ripe with dramatic possibilities — led to his money troubles. A decade ago, he was basking in Hollywood offers to option his stage persona for various Seinfeld-esque sitcoms. None of these transitions to the small screen panned out, but Kornbluth got to keep the advance money when he returned to San Francisco and theater. Unfortunately, he neglected to pay taxes on his sudden influx of Tinseltown cash, and quickly found himself owing the government tens of thousands of dollars.
In typical fashion, Kornbluth turned his personal foibles into theater. In “Love & Taxes,” he consults a tax attorney, who assures him, “Josh, you don’t have to pay me until you become rich and famous.” Kornbluth, confessing to the audience, notes, “The way I process words, the ‘until’ essentially becomes a period.” His debts continue to escalate, peaking at $80,000. Meanwhile, lurking like an April 15 deadline is the memory of his father’s distrust of “the man” in all his manifestations: census taker, meter-reader and, presumably, tax collector. Kornbluth nonetheless manages to pick his way out of this morass. By the end of “Love & Taxes,” he’s found merit and meaning in the labyrinthine American tax system.
He also falls in love in the show, much as he did in real life in 1997, when he married Sara Sato, a Japanese-American elementary school teacher and self-described Kornbluth groupie. Together they have a son, Guthrie, named after folksinger Woody Guthrie. (“We tried to come up with a name that was sort of Russian, Jewish and Japanese, and we couldn’t work it out,” Kornbluth said. “A null set.”)
While he exploits his own experiences — including his family life — in his monologues, he tries to keep his wife and son out of the spotlight whenever possible. He admits, though, to tinkering with veracity to improve the flow of his narratives.
“Things tend to be mostly true,” he said. “But my rule of thumb has tended to be that if it’s really weird, it’s probably true. I don’t myself know how much is true sometimes. Like, emotions — how do I feel about things? So in a way there’s fiction and what I do onstage and my onstage persona and there’s also truths I don’t discover until after I’ve been doing the show. It’s a complicated experience.”
Kornbluth was raised in Manhattan by Jewish parents who were devout atheists and anti-Zionists. His mother, Bunny, was a librarian, and his father was a teacher and outspoken revolutionary with a slew of like-minded comrades.
“I really do feel the communism I was raised with was a religious background,” Kornbluth told the Forward. “I also even feel, without having the knowledge of Judaism to back it up, my parents’ embrace of communism was a way in part of taking their Jewish traditions from the old country and making them something that felt modern to them, that didn’t involve God, ostensibly. It felt very much like faith. It still does.”
Kornbluth had been working as a newspaper copy editor and writer in Boston and Chicago when he stumbled onto performance in his late 20s. He initially thought he might like to do comedy. Then he saw monologuist Spalding Gray and realized what he really wanted was to tell audiences about himself.
Kornbluth’s confessional humor has given him a measure of fame in the San Francisco Bay Area, itself no stranger to the quirky. During an hour-long interview at an outdoor café, twice adoring fans approached him. One gushed that he’d seen “Haiku Tunnel” 18 times.
But with “Love & Taxes,” Kornbluth isn’t simply talking about himself anymore — he’s starting discussions. He has arranged post-show “Tax Talkbacks” featuring experts discussing American tax policy. New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston, who covers tax issues, will speak December 14 and January 4. Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman is scheduled for December 28.
Reformed tax delinquent Kornbluth has also started a Web log, www.i-r-us.org, which he thinks might even be the catalyst for some sort of pro-tax movement. “People are a little dubious, because it’s me, for one,” he admitted. In typical Kornbluthian fashion, he’s not sure where this will lead, if anywhere.
Perhaps to his next piece. He’s mulling something on voting or politics. Either way, he’s confident he’ll never exhaust his interests. “I feel that I’ve just sort of scratched the surface,” Kornbluth said. “There’s so many things I haven’t talked about and so many levels deeper that I see great playwrights go and great moviemakers and writers. It’s so much farther than I’ve gone.”