Lost Lake

Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn’s return to Manhattan Theatre Club includes a two-handed drama with a lakeside view.

Tracie Thoms (Veronica) and John Hawkes (Hogan) in David Auburn's Lost Lake, directed by Daniel Sullivan, at New York City Center — Stage I.
Tracie Thoms (Veronica) and John Hawkes (Hogan) in David Auburn's Lost Lake, directed by Daniel Sullivan, at New York City Center — Stage I.
(© Joan Marcus)

Renter meets rentee in David Auburn's new play, Lost Lake, which joins Manhattan Theatre Club's off-Broadway season at New York City Center. The premise is simple, but there are few scenarios more rife with dramatic fodder. Two disconnected worlds collide as someone's personal living space is commandeered by a complete stranger. And as any Airbnb-er knows, there's often an intriguing tale of desperation lurking in the walls of the inexplicably vacated home. Auburn takes a drill to this dramatic well, stretching his muscles of imagination with a modest two-hander that ups the ante of this unorthodox business relationship. But while a master class in character study unfolds onstage, the story struggles to reach a dramatic level beyond that of a sturdily structured exercise in playwriting.

A single mother (Tracie Thoms) and the troubled owner of the remote lakeside cottage she rents for an August week are the two unlikely souls Auburn throws together over the flame of a contentious financial transaction. Veronica (Thoms), like the shrewd, self-sufficient woman she proves herself to be, takes a trip to visit her potential summer getaway to check out the accommodations and negotiate a payment plan with the homeowner. "Rustic" is the only flattering adjective applicable to the less-than-idyllic setting in which she meets her equally bedraggled host, Hogan (John Hawkes). Set designer J. Michael Griggs arranges a perfectly hideous man cave, complete with a set of worn plaid furniture — which matches Hogan's personal fashion aesthetic (costumes by Jess Goldstein) — and rusty, mismatched chairs surrounding a table that holds at least three years of dust. Still, the rural surroundings and bargain price are enough to win over Veronica for a weeklong stay with her two children and a third playmate her daughter decides to bring along on the trip.

Flash forward a few months. By the time Veronica arrives, the lake dock is in shambles, the water heater is broken, and some not-so-child-friendly magazines are left in plain sight for all underage visitors to see. Fortunately Hogan is still lingering around the property, so Veronica begins demanding refunds and discounts for her unsatisfactory stay — an awkward conversation that exposes the financial pressures which, since the pair's last meeting, happened to have made their way to both sides of the bargaining table. As the negotiators gradually lay out their cards, the conversation smoothly transitions from professional to intimately personal.

Daniel Sullivan reprises his collaboration with Auburn, having previously directed the playwright's Proof and The Columnist. His minimally invasive staging keeps Auburn's character-shaping dialogue center stage, though the alternatives are slim for a play that relies exclusively on discussions of past events, rather than a live illustration of a presently unfolding plot. Thoms and Hawkes spark an impressively kinetic chemistry that maintains our curiosity amid the lackluster storyline and keeps us anticipating something that will drive us to a place of emotional investment that their performances deserve.

We get full-bodied pictures from both actors, as they portray a couple of seemingly polar opposites who certainly do not attract, but find common ground in unexpected places. Hawkes is simultaneously endearing and infuriating as the money-strapped Hogan, whose good heart registers beneath his immaturity and propensity for compulsive lying. Even after spewing several of these falsehoods in Veronica's direction (whose savviness is no match for Hogan's sloppy deceptions) Thoms' genuine rapport with her costar justifies the moments in which her character decides to confide in her negligent landlord. Veronica's motivation for cultivating such an unconventional relationship with this eccentric character, however, is what remains relatively unexplored. The relationship itself has the makings of something truly fascinating. Yet, as Auburn burdens his female protagonist with even more baggage than she initially lugged up to her supposedly relaxing destination, he leaves a little too much of it unpacked.

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