Monday, December 22, 2014

Lost Lake: Broken Gates

Tracie Thoms and John Hawkes in Lost Lake, at the Manhattan Theatre Club. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Lost Lake, the new play by David Auburn (Proof, The Columnist), is very conventional, but I quite enjoyed it. It’s a two-hander with a familiar set-up: two strangers thrown together under unusual circumstances move from being (roughly) adversaries to becoming (unorthodox) friends because the tensions and uncertainties in their disparate lives bond them. They are Veronica (Tracie Thoms), a New York City nurse and single mother who rents a cabin in the woods upstate for a week in the summer for herself, her two young kids and her daughter’s friend; and Hogan (John Hawkes), whose cabin it is. (The three children remain offstage presences.) When Veronica arrives, she finds that Hogan hasn’t fixed up the premises as he’d promised; the phone doesn’t work and she has to retreat up the road to get a decent cell phone signal. She doesn’t realize that he’s in dire straits, financially and emotionally – that, in fact, he’s living in his car, having run away or been thrown out by his brother and sister-in-law. (He says he was thrown out, but, as we learn along with Veronica, he’s an unreliable source of information about his own situation.) He doesn’t know that she is also in extremis: she’s just lost her job and, for complicated reasons, is in the midst of trying to get the review board to agree not to rescind her nursing license.

The play – which is receiving an absorbing production by the Manhattan Theatre Club under Daniel Sullivan’s direction – takes a while to heat up, and when it does we realize that Auburn has drawn us in gradually, subtly, by writing characters who are quirky and individualized enough to catch our attention, and whose stories are poignant enough to get us to invest in them. Veronica’s New York edge and instinctual suspiciousness make her uncomfortable with Hogan’s overfriendliness and impatient with his excuses. Both of them are sternly independent by nature, defensive and resistant to anything that looks or sounds like easy sympathy. But they’re both in such a bad way that their unhappiness and their need to be understood bleed through their armor. And then, a large and a small gesture of kindness from Hogan unexpectedly lowers her guard. While she’s up the road trying to reason over the phone with the review board, her daughter’s friend disobeys the rules, wades into the man-made lake on Hogan’s property, and goes under; nearby in the car that serves as his temporary domicile, Hogan sees her and leaps in to save her. Veronica’s first impulse is to downplay the seriousness of the accident, both because she feels guilty and because she has to call the child’s father and convince him that she didn’t act irresponsibly and that he has nothing to worry about. And she doesn’t want to be beholden to Hogan, whom she’s already decided is a screw-up and a welcher. Perhaps that’s why it’s the smaller action that softens her. On his first visit to the cabin, Hogan spots a book on birds she took out from the local library for her son; it was the only one she could find, but it’s really for grown-ups. Before she leaves with her family to return to the city, he drops by with a children’s book on ornithology that he bought for the boy. This act, which touches her, comes back to us later when we find out that he’s estranged from his own child, a freshman at Columbia who has changed her e-mail so that he can’t contact her.

Both actors are good, especially Hawkes. Auburn has written him a little beauty of a speech, just before the end of the play, in which Hogan tells Veronica his fantasy about showing up unannounced at his daughter’s dorm and taking her and her friends out for a meal; his desperate reach for a connection so ordinary yet so essential to the relationship between any college student and her father, is heart-rending. In his great play The Night of the Iguana, set among lonely people who intersect each other’s lives at a hotel at the edge of a Mexican rain forest, Tennessee Williams has one of his characters talk about the balm afforded us by “broken gates between people” who meet by chance. That’s the subject of Lost Lake.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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