Review: 'The Lake Effect'

A brother, sister and their surrogate sibling unpack family baggage in 'The Lake Effect'
The Lake Effect TENSION OVER TEA: Bernard (Jason Bowen), left, argues with Priya (Nilanjana Bose) and Vijay (Adam Poss) in 'The Lake Effect,' now playing at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photograph by Kevin Berne

This weekend I was dismayed to learn that my favorite local Indian restaurant had suddenly closed, after decades as a neighborhood staple. Sad news but appropriate timing for me to see The Lake Effect—a cafe-set tale of simmering family grudges and secrets making its West Coast premiere. The fresh and engaging TheatreWorks production is now playing at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

As a winter storm blankets Cleveland with snow, jaded Wall Street worker Vijay (Adam Poss) is drawn back from New York to the now-shuttered Indian restaurant his family's owned for 40 years to make a final visit to his estranged, ailing father, Vinnie. There he meets the affable Bernard (Jason Bowen), a man who's become something like a surrogate son to Vinnie, much to Vijay's surprise and annoyance. His father, it seems, confided in Bernard all manner of family information, sharing insights into his life that he never would with his own children, including private details on his relationship with Vijay's beloved, long-deceased mother. To add insult to injury, in all his apparently heartfelt discussions with Bernard, Vinnie somehow never saw fit to mention he had a son.

Vijay knows his Delhi-born father as a stingy, taciturn disciplinarian while Bernard knows a wise mentor happy to engage in long conversations and risk big bucks on football bets. The incredulous son finds the disparity difficult to reconcile.

Also arriving after a long absence is Vijay's younger sister, Priya (Nilanjana Bose), up from Florida, leaving behind a shady business and troubled marriage. She's an immature, selfish woman, who's nonetheless perpetually the apple of her father's eye. She knows some things about their father that Vijay, and even Bernard, do not. And as the trio reluctantly spends time together in the closed cafe, more and more intriguing details are brought to light.

The Lake Effect was written by Rajiv Joseph, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and a previous participant in TheatreWorks' 2014 New Works festival. With The Lake Effect, he and director Giovanna Sardelli are able to create a tense, tightly wound story out of an ostensibly unremarkable situation. The play (one act, no intermission) is well paced and the script allows surprising, sometimes shocking information to be revealed at a steady clip. After a while, the constant bickering and raised voices of Vijay and Priya start to grow tiresome but the brief length keeps things moving. Crucially, Joseph has a good ear for dialogue and there are plenty of humorous moments to punctuate the drama.

And though he's never seen nor heard, patriarch Vinnie emerges as a fourth character—his presence always looming large, as facets of his personality are revealed through the characters' dialog.

Poss and Bowen are both excellent as two very different men—one cerebral and suspicious, one jovial and open-hearted—who have experienced completely different sides of Vijay's father and yet may have more in common than Vijay wants to think. Bose's petulant Priya is the weakest link, her cartoonish portrayal never seeming quite natural in her more ridiculous moments, although appealing in the sweeter ones.

While I was left with a few unanswered questions, the production is strong overall, and Wilson Chin's scenic design deserves special kudos. The set is an incredibly believable recreation of a slightly shabby, unpretentious restaurant, filled with so many little details that, even though every scene but one takes place there, there's always something new to notice—such as the twinkling Christmas lights, Hindu idols and family photos hung from the walls. Clearly the unnamed restaurant, although not fancy, was well loved. Convincing snowfall outside is an outstanding touch, setting an appropriately chilly mood.

The play's setting amongst the Indian- and African American community of Cleveland is based on Joseph's own experience, but the story could probably be transplanted to any U.S. city and still be successful (although the Great Lakes-specific title would need to be changed). At its heart, The Lake Effect is a darkly funny, intimate play about fairly ordinary, flawed people in a relatable world. Audiences spending an evening with this family will find it an entertaining and rewarding experience, and may also find themselves wondering what secrets lie behind the kitchen door at their favorite local restaurant.

The Lake Effect

Thru Mar 29, $19-$74

Lucie Stern Theatre

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