In his South Coast Repertory-commissioned “Goldfish,” John Kolvenbach concocts an ingenious variation on a familiar trope: the working-class college kid wooing the spoiled rich coed. His twist — factoring in the lovers’ parents, who see their own mistakes about to be repeated — affords greater ballast than the average romantic comedy musters, with moderately enjoyable results in Loretta Greco’s slick but emotionally muted premiere production.
After meeting cute in the library, the uptight, science-minded Albert (Tasso Feldman) and madcap Lucy (Kate Rylie) take a semester-long Relationships 101 course from awkward fumbling to genuine intimacy. Sincerity and warmth are the long suits here, but more bitterness from Feldman, considering the institution’s strict social caste system, and more sense from Rylie of delicious dalliance in uncharted waters, would add freshness to an otherwise stock pairing.
It’s the context of their affair that interests Kolvenbach most, beginning with Albert’s widower dad, Leo (Conor O’Farrell), whose pensioner life is a sinkhole of torpor and gambling losses. The strict budget Albert establishes goes for naught when Leo succumbs to the racetrack’s siren call, putting his son’s tuition money, and ultimately his entire future, at risk.
At the same time, hard-drinking divorcee Margaret (Joan McMurtrey) is battling her own ghosts, notably Tom, the charming but dissolute roue whose only redeeming act seems to have been fathering Lucy.
Kolvenbach shows a gift for wry banter in the mother-daughter scenes: “Look at you,” murmurs Margaret mid-martini. “I am flabbergasted by how beautiful I used to be.” If she’s a wounded lioness, McMurtrey nevertheless fiercely mothers her cub when “an unfit boy” comes into the picture, an outwardly polite confrontation with Albert crackling with unspoken determination on both sides.
Unfortunately, the far more consequential Leo/Albert dynamic lacks a similar undercurrent of emotional stakes. O’Farrell’s Leo seems to accept his loser status with far too much equanimity. We don’t see the resentment of a dad under the thumb of his kid, or feel the ache of a sad sack who can’t win for losing even with the best of intentions.
By the same token, the steel Feldman brings to his faceoff with his girl’s mother is missing from his dealings with Dad. Instead, there’s an air of resignation present, as if both battlers have thrown in the towel well in advance of the opening round.
Perhaps helmer Greco has steered the men to back off from too much emotional show lest the play teeter into melodrama. It doesn’t, but neither does it grip, as the playwright evidently intended it should.
Opportunities for fully realized life are also missed in the physical world of “Goldfish.” Leo’s crummy kitchen, perfectly evoked in Myung Hee Cho’s avocado-and-gold color scheme, is properly tidy when Albert leaves for college, but as time passes the environment doesn’t include ajar cabinet doors or undiscarded soup cans to reflect Leo’s careless lifestyle.
Would Margaret, the voracious smoker, really extinguish after one quick puff the cigarette she demands from Lucy? Would Albert, so eager to exit, immediately put down his suitcase when Leo announces he’s about to tell a story? Kolvenbach’s subtly etched characters should gain stature as thesps grow into their roles, exploring their physical reality and maybe taking a flyer on some increased emotional risk.