Photo By Joan Marcus
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A play that has only two characters is heavily reliant on its two actors and on its central situation. In David Auburn’s Lost Lake, an extremely modest two-character play, Hogan (John Hawkes) is a shiftless guy renting out his ramshackle cottage to Veronica (Tracie Thoms), a widow and mother who is at loose ends. The first scene involves them haggling over the price of the cottage, and this opening is very unpromising. Hawkes and Thoms don’t have any particular chemistry, but they work hard on that problem as the play goes on.
Hogan comes back to fix the hot water tank and take care of some other problems with the place, and the two of them keep talking. And talking. You know perfectly well that these characters would not be talking to each other past a certain point, but they have to keep going because that’s all there is to the play. They have to chat, essentially, until they have revealed something about themselves. And so Hogan keeps coming back because his brother’s wife has kicked him out of their house and he is staying in his car on the property. This freaks Veronica out a bit, but just a bit, because they need to keep chatting about themselves and their past.
This is the sort of play where the people involved probably congratulated themselves a bit over not making it a romance (Hogan makes a half-hearted pass at Veronica toward the end that gets instantly shot down). This is also the sort of play where fear of taking any kind of risk has boiled the whole thing down to a quiet, plodding, digestible little mini-drama, low stakes, carefully structured, like a doll’s house with only two little dolls in it. By the end, it has improved slightly, or deepened, if only because Hawkes is such a fine and soulful actor. In the last scene, he sits on the floor and widens his eyes a bit and lets his talent take over, and it doesn’t even really matter what he is saying because he is in the zone, and he is offering something to us far beyond what the play is tentatively trying for.
Lost Lake is defined not by what it is but by what it is not. It is not a love story, and it is not a drama of any kind, really. It is about two fairly unhappy people who gradually reveal their unhappiness and problems to each other and gain some measure of comfort from that. There’s nothing wrong with a theme like this in theory, but everything has been so circumscribed and tidied-up that all you can feel is the falseness of the set, the lines, the actors trying to communicate with each other. Auburn’s play Proof in 2001 was a memorable vehicle for Mary-Louise Parker, and he has worked sparingly since then. He has skill and talent. What he needs to do is dare to take some chances.