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Review: 'Goldfish' at South Coast Repertory

March 24, 2009 | 11:05 am

GoldfishThe goldfish is one of the most popular pets in the world, but it's also one of the most stupid -- an animal capable of eating itself to death if its owner overfeeds it.

Such is the image conjured by a character in playwright John Kolvenbach's engaging but problematic comedy-drama "Goldfish," having its world premiere at South Coast Repertory. Like the ubiquitous aquatic pet, the human beings in his play are high-maintenance creatures who require just the right balance of nurture and detachment, care and tough love to properly survive.

It's a clever metaphor, one subtly inserted into the midst of a domestic tale about dysfunctional parents and their children. Unfortunately, the play doesn't go much deeper than this precious conceit, offering a conventional story about the burdens of parental baggage and the retribution that offspring inflict on their elders. Despite the churning emotional rapids on display, it's clear that this goldfish is swimming in shallow waters.

Kolvenbach's play tells the story of 19-year-old Albert Ledger (Tasso Feldman), an uptight college student who lives with his irresponsible father, Leo (Conor O'Farrell). Their relationship is one of strained civility and barely suppressed hostility. As Albert prepares to leave for the semester, he instructs his dad in matters of money so that the old man doesn't squander the family savings on his gambling habit.

When parents behave like children, the children have no choice but to assume parental responsibilities. At school, Albert meets and eventually falls in love with Lucy (Kate Rylie), a young classmate who has parent problems of her own. Her mother, Margaret (Joan McMurtrey), is an alcoholic dowager who lounges around their mansion in her bathrobe and pearls, swilling martinis (drinking like a fish?) while insulting whoever happens to be standing in front of her.

The play's structural symmetry -- two messed-up parents, two damaged offspring -- creates some interesting psychological friction, hinting that the writer has something clever to say about the universality of generational warfare. But the overall message of "Goldfish" remains murky at best, buried under half-formed ideas and numerous narrative cliches.

One recurring theme is the resentment that working-class Albert feels toward his wealthier classmates. He secretly plots revenge scenarios and immerses himself in books as a way of sealing himself off from their easy world. Some of his anger spills onto Lucy, but the play doesn't develop his festering animosity into any meaningful statement on class envy.

Part of the problem with the play is that it focuses on the wrong characters. Albert and his father are a dull pair whose problems could barely sustain a one-act. On the other hand, Lucy and her spectacularly debauched mother generate a fairground's worth of fireworks as they spar for the emotional upper hand.

As the soused matriarch, McMurtrey steals every scene she's in. The actress plays her character not as a dumb drunk, which would have been the easy choice, but as an intelligent drunk who knows exactly what she's doing even if it means self-destruction. It's ironic and maybe deliberate that the character with the most lucid sense of self is this pickled harridan who stumbles around in a semi-conscious haze.

"Goldfish" (commissioned by SCR) is a handsome production that shifts elegantly among the story's many locations. Loretta Greco's direction evokes the passage of time with an effortless simplicity and makes the most of the modest Julianne Argyros Stage.

Too often, the play goes to great lengths to spell out the obvious. Families, it tells us, are highly problematic organisms that break down constantly and require around-the-clock attention. At other moments, families can be miraculous, self-correcting units capable of fixing their own flaws. These points are valid, but do we really need a play to tell us what we already know?

In the end, "Goldfish" feels like an unfinished work. The final moments lack the polish of the earlier scenes, and the climax feels too neatly tied together, as if the playwright were completing a geometric proof.

Kolvenbach has promising material here, but like a quickly darting fish, it ultimately eludes his grasp,

-- David Ng

"Goldfish," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa;  7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends April 5;  $28 to $64. (714) 708-5555.

Photo: Tasso Feldman and Kate Rylie. Credit: Lori Shepler/Los Angeles Times