Playwright Rajiv Joseph is best known for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which was introduced to Chicago last winter by the Lookingglass Theatre Company. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010, the play offers a dreamlike, absurd, yet morally and politically serious evocation of Dubya’s Iraq war—narrated by the title cat, who’s killed for biting off an American soldier’s hand only to find himself walking the ruined streets of Baghdad as a ghost.
Don’t expect the same sort of experience from The Lake Effect, the Joseph script getting an uneven but involving world-premiere production now at Silk Road Rising. This one is a totally different animal.
As are most of Joseph’s other plays. With the exceptions of Bengal Tiger and The Leopard and the Fox—his adaptation of Tariq Ali’s book about the 1977 overthrow of Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—Joseph’s output to date consists of quirky, intimate, character-driven pieces dealing with subjects such as the bond between two dangerously accident-prone friends (Gruesome Playground Injuries), a despondent origami artist who takes on a teenage pupil (Animals Out of Paper), and a poetry teacher who manages to get three women pregnant in a single two-week period (All This Intimacy). Bengal Tiger is the anomaly—which must give Joseph pause when he considers its success.
The Lake Effect, on the other hand, fits the quirky/intimate pattern nicely.
Vijay is the thoroughly assimilated, 36-year-old son of a couple that emigrated from India, settled in a bad part of Cleveland, started a greasy spoon, and raised their kids in the apartment overhead. His beloved mom died in a car crash when he was 12, leaving him with a younger sister, Priya, and their tight-lipped, not-so-beloved dad, known in America as Vinnie. Her death also left him hugely pissed off. Vijay decamped for New York—and a career on Wall Street, stoking the subprime bubble—at the earliest opportunity.
The prodigal son has been drawn back home, however, to see Vinnie through his final illness. Alone in the closed restaurant, poring over Vinnie’s mystifying account books while a winter storm howls outside, Vijay is very unexpectedly joined by Bernard, a marginal African-American man with a taste for lamb biryani. Although Vijay tries hard to get rid of him, Bernard has a talent for talking through objections. And, as it turns out, he’s got a claim on the place as Vinnie’s best customer. In fact, it quickly becomes clear that Bernard was Vinnie’s closest friend, too. Vijay is deeply wounded to learn not only that Bernard knows Vinnie so much better than he does, but that the Vinnie Bernard knows is so wildly different from—and better than—the one who raised him.
As this summary may suggest, Joseph’s setup can be pat and way too neatly symmetrical. That’s especially true when it comes to Bernard. The character is explicitly positioned as Vijay’s gentler black twin. He’s the same age as Vijay, and lost his mother the same year; he even works in a speculative market like Vijay, placing bets with bookies on behalf of neighborhood people, in exchange for a commission. And yet, very much unlike Vijay, he’s figured out how to live without anger. Together with his tendency to poeticize about lake-effect snow and how we’re all connected because “water is us,” Bernard’s equanimity brings him perilously close to coming across as the magical black man of the piece—the poor and simple soul who’s stayed in touch with his roots and can therefore speak wisdom to sophisticated rich folk when they lose their way.
Thank God director Timothy Douglas has found the means to keep that particular cliche in check. He and his Bernard, Mark Smith, create a moment at the very end of The Lake Effect that gently, quietly subverts our whole sense of the man—and the dynamics of the play itself—opening a whole new world of complexities. It lasts just a beat, but it’s brilliant.
Nothing so thoroughly transformative happens anywhere else in the show. Joseph’s writing is smart and funny, and he occasionally throws out an intriguing detail (Vinnie is “psychic” when it comes to betting on football) or uncanny image (a Nissan Sentra at the bottom of the ocean) that gives things texture. But there’s an overall sense that he knows rather too well—too MFAishly—who everybody is and how they function together.
Phenomenal in Victory Gardens Theater’s Oedipus El Rey and scary charismatic in Goodman Theatre’s Teddy Ferrara, Adam Poss gives in too completely to Vijay’s rage. Conversely, Minita Gandhi doesn’t go far enough to embody the tragic ditz that Priya has grown up to be. It’s a potentially rich role, but Gandhi manages only a flutter of desperation.