Playwright John Kolvenbach likes simple things. He lives in lower Manhattan and walks across the Brooklyn Bridge to his tiny studio office in an area called “DUMBO” (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) where he works on scripts … and answers the phone for interviews.
I spoke to him recently about his play, Love Song, which opens a month-long run at the Cincinnati Playhouse this week.
Some simple things inspired the play, which premiered in 2006 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company — most specifically, by a record player Kolvenbach purchased on eBay. “I had a bunch of old records that I had when I was a reasonably young person,” he says. “I saved a lot of them, I don’t really know why.”
The writer, now 42, found himself listening to LPs from his teens, twenties and early thirties. He spent a lot of time with the piano-laced tunes from Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue (“a really raw, sad break-up album”) and Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby (especially the confessional title tune, written by Tom Waits).
The sound of those slightly scratchy records, he says, coming from his player’s big speakers, was “kind of nostalgic and evocative. It occurred to me that the emotional power of a love song, not songs that you would necessarily consider to be ‘high art,’ that nonetheless access in you something surprisingly deep. It occurred to me that I wanted to write a play that was a ‘love song,’ that would move the audience.”
Even before he really began to write his play, he had its title in mind: Love Song. Kolvenbach wanted to write about different kinds of love.
“Filial love, romantic love, the kind of love that exists in a marriage that has gone stale, love as a kind of contagion and love as a kind of disease,” he says.
“I wanted to write a fable about romantic love and whether it is illusory, whether we create the ‘other’ — as it were, our partners.”
His play focuses on an oddball named Beane, a tollbooth worker who has exiled himself from life and become a hermit. His well-meaning sister tries to bring him out of his shell, but he digs in his antisocial heels. Then he falls in love with Molly, a woman who burglarizes his home. Much to his sister’s mystification and concern, he becomes happier, and his state of mind affects his careerobsessed sister and her troubled marriage.
In the early 1990s, Kolvenbach studied acting at Rutgers University with Ed Stern, the Playhouse’s producing artistic director.
“I have a little notebook with notes from one of Ed’s classes about how to approach a scene,” Kolvenbach says. “I still use that and find it useful in my writing.”
Stern was impressed with Kolvenbach as anactor, and even more as a playwright.
“John’s dramatic impulse is to find something that perfectly suits contemporary audiences,” Stern says.
Stern calls Love Song a “most perfect comedy that celebrates both life and love.”
I ask Kolvenbach if he thinks of himself as a writer of comic works. He categorizes them more as “dramatic comedies” and explains, “I never write them to be comedies — and they always come out funny. I don’t do it on purpose. I write them as close to the bone as I can, and inevitably I think I’ve written a searing drama with laughs, and then it comes out more as a comedy with some heart in it.”
Love Song’s second American production happened in September 2007 at Marin Theatre Company in California’s Bay Area, where Jasson Minadakis is artistic director. (Minadakis was a co-founder of Cincinnati Shakespeare in 1994; he stays in touch with local theater artists, including Stern, to whom he sent a copy of the script.) “Audiences simply fall head over heels in love with Beane and Molly,” says Minadakis, who staged the production. “I had more than one patron ask if John was going to write a second play about them.”
Kolvenbach’s genius is in his characters, according to Minadakis.
“They are people who live on the fringes,” Minadakis says. “They don’t quite fit into the world around them. Some of them see the world as hostile, some are just ambivalent to all the trappings of a consumer culture they don’t quite understand — or care to understand. But they all share huge hearts, and they all have an optimism that I think audiences find refreshing and hopeful.”
After its Chicago premiere, Love Song had a production in London’s West End. That exposure led to subsequent international stagings in Auckland, Seoul, Sydney, Melbourne and Dublin, with another happening soon in Rome. Kolvenbach suspects that’s because it’s about universal things — “about falling in love and falling out of love, about marriage and about the hopes a person in a certain state of alienation might have for connection, a kind of desire for communion, which is universal.”
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