Friday, March 13, 2015

"The Lake Effect"

The Lake Effect
Rajiv Joseph

As the lights go down and the scene on the stage illuminates, much has already happened involving the threesome we are soon to meet that they themselves do not totally know.  Just as the snow-covered ground outside the little Indian, family-owned café before us will get deeper as it snows vigorously for the play’s duration, mysteries will deepen and intrigue for them and us will increase in the next 90 minutes.

Thirty-six-year-old Vijay arrives after a 15-year absence in Cleveland at his father’s café (exceptionally designed by Wilson Chin in many wonderful details).  We enter the scene as the very handsome, sophisticated-looking son is alone in the café, looking in exasperation at his father’s in-the-red finances.  A similarly-aged, head-scarred African-American man congenially lumbers in and sits down at a table with a certain familiarity.  As awkward conversation turns into rapid-fire exchanges, Vijay begins to learn that Bernard is his dad’s (Vinnie’s) closest friend and knows many more things about his dad, his deceased mom, and his younger sister that he himself knows.  Most shockingly, he learns that Bernard has never heard Vinnie mention a son, that his non-sports-oriented dad is now an active (and wildly successful) football-pool better, and that Vijay is both his dad’s bookie and apparent “BFF.”  When the next scene opens three days later, the unseen Vinnie is now dead; the daughter/sister Priya has arrived from Florida; and a whole new set of secrets, surprises, and suspicions are aroused amongst and between brother, sister, and Bernard.  The snow gets deeper as does the conundrum of what is really going on among and between these three strangers and the now-dead Vinnie.

Adam Poss presents an uptight, yet poised Vijay who appears externally the epitome of success and togetherness but who slowly unveils much the opposite.  Joseph’s script provides Mr. Poss very little opportunity to reveal to us much about his motivations for a 15-year, family absence; what has led to his current, unhappy state; or his strong compulsion for brutal truth-telling no matter how hurtful.  Mr. Poss does little in his guarded portrayal to lift that scripted shroud, resulting in our never really getting to connect with Vijay on a human level.  On the other hand, we learn much about his sister from both her and Bernard.  Priya is an open book in both script and in the vivid, impulsive, and constantly active expression and movement that Nilanjana Bose brings to her.  We have some pretty good understanding as time goes on of who she is and how she got to be that way; but there are also some remaining unknowns of why she and her brother are such adversaries.

The key thread to hold our attention in this play is the character of Bernard and the particular portrait of him by Jason Bowen.  Mr. Bowen never misses a moment to draw empathy and liking from us as audience.  How can we not respond to his teddy-bear-like demeanor, his occasional lingering touch on that awful scar on his head, and his frequent smile that is quarter moon in size?  Plagued by increasing amnesia due to his head injury, Bernard has lost an anchor in his life when Vinnie dies.  As he tries to hang onto his inherent optimism, a secret about him is also unveiled – a big, awful thing that literally shakes his universe.  However, it his singular reaction to that earthquake moment that opens up the possibility for all three to begin letting go of their pasts and to move into a future where secrets, revealed or not, really do not matter.  Bernard opens a gate that suddenly invites a major breakthrough.  Mr. Bowen lets this happen naturally and believably, leading Vijay, Priya and us to follow him to a surprise resolution of these prickly pasts.

One more wonderful aspect of this play is how Mr. Joseph uses the unseen but very present characters of this play – Vinnie, his wife, and Bernard’s mother.  What those three took with them in death could in fact answer many of the questions and mysteries raised by their children, but those children and we come to realize, “Is that really important?”  The dead parents through Vinnie lead us (and maybe Vijay and Priya) to understand that hanging onto old tapes in our head and trying to make sense of them or letting them continue to rule our lives is like trying to keep a bit of last year’s snow in the freezer, hoping it will still taste good this year.  That snow will be as out-of-place the next summer as those old tapes in our head are in our present lives, and neither tasting the snow or listening over and again to the tapes will be pleasant.

Rating: 5 E’s

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