Over the past ten years or so, starting with his work on HBO’s lamentably short-lived Deadwood and continuing with memorable roles in indies such as Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sessions, John Hawkes has carved a significant reputation as a protean screen actor, as capable of conveying glinting menace as gentle humanity. It’s rewarding to observe that his lean physicality and haunted everyman expressiveness are no less compelling in his New York stage debut. Add in a flinty co-starring performance from Tracie Thoms and a dependable director like Daniel Sullivan, and you have the makings of a strong two-hander. What’s missing in Lost Lake is dramatic substance.
Written by David Auburn, who won a 2001 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Proof, this slender one-act play is a melancholy portrait of two strangers reaching for a tentative connection across the divide of their damaged lives. Auburn is too intelligent a playwright to go for expected banalities like an unlikely romance or an eruption of violence. But he hasn’t really come up with an engrossing alternative to flesh out his twin character studies into a play that feels complete. Perhaps it’s a side effect of Hawkes’ presence, but Lost Lake in many ways suggests it might have acquired more atmosphere and psychological weight as a small-scale movie.
The action takes place over a roughly one-year span in a rustic lakeside cabin, somewhere in the Northeast not too far from New York. Designer J. Michael Griggs’ set is filled with ramshackle detail. The hunting and fishing trophies suggest a happier history than that indicated by the cabin’s rundown present state. Robert Perry’s lighting, as seen through the large picture windows, elegantly conveys the changing seasons and times of day.
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The owner, Hogan (Hawkes), looks even shabbier than his property. But he promises that substantial improvements will be made by the time skeptical Veronica (Thoms), a New York nurse practitioner, comes up with her kids for a week in late August. Visiting in the spring to check out the rental, Veronica is disconcerted to learn that Hogan lives there and will be moving out to stay with his brother for the summer. But after some haggling over terms, she puts down a deposit.
Hawkes and Thoms play the two characters’ courteous but prickly negotiations beautifully. She’s mildly aloof and a little passive-aggressive about the need for repairs, but appears to be in no position to look for a more upscale vacation alternative. He’s polite and ingratiating, though there’s an invasive edge to his personal questions and his opinions about her vacation planning.
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Friction develops when Veronica and the unseen children arrive four months after the initial agreement and find things unchanged — the swimming dock has not been fixed, the telephone has been cut off, the place is a mess and there’s no hot water.
As a setup, this is intriguing enough, but the play becomes hampered by its own restraint. While Auburn explores the characters’ back stories and bruises with delicate sensitivity, gradually revealing where both their lives have taken regrettable turns, the dramatic stakes remain muted. The chief compensation through all this is watching how achingly real Hawkes makes his character, a messy drunk and a textbook loser, dishonest more out of necessity than choice.
There’s an invigorating visual jolt before the final scene, when a clever staging trick shows how drastically things have deteriorated for Hogan in the six months since Veronica’s stay at the cabin. And her attempted intervention allows for affecting moments from both actors as they acknowledge the difficulties life has thrown at them. But the playwright has not really established Veronica as the kind of person willing to get drawn into other people’s chaos. She has enough of her own, though of course that’s the basis of her uneasy kinship with Hogan. However, the drama’s extended emotional climax seems somewhat inauthentic, no matter how much truth Hawkes and Thoms breathe into it.
The sense emerges that Auburn has set himself the task of writing a two-character, single-setting play and then forcibly squeezed the story of Hogan and Veronica into that limiting framework. There’s much talk of Hogan’s younger brother and his wife, who have contributed to his isolation, and perhaps introducing one or both of those characters would have alleviated the structural monotony. Even the actual appearance of the children might have helped. As it is, Lost Lake leaves the frustrating impression that some of the story’s most interesting parts are happening between scenes, or after the play ends.
Cast: John Hawkes, Tracie Thoms
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Playwright: David Auburn
Set designer: J. Michael Griggs
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Robert Perry
Music & sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club