David Auburn won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his play Proof, which is probably the only reason that Lost Lake is being produced now by the Manhattan Theatre Club. This is a textbook mediocre American play: Veronica (Tracie Thoms) is a nurse practitioner and a single mom who is looking to rent a cabin for a week in the summer with her two children and maybe one of their friends. The cabin is owned by Hogan (John Hawkes), a man with some sort of mental disability who has absolutely no sense of social decorum. She decides to take the place, and Lost Lake consists of a series of awkward conversations the two have before, throughout, and after Veronica’s stay. Like virtually every other play written in this country in the last forty years, an uncomfortable situation gradually becomes the site of revelation and unlikely connections.
It is a long ninety minutes. Usually this kind of work, following the model of the well-made play, features witty dialogue and well-realized characters to compensate for unimaginative drama—see, for example, Donald Margulies’ Country House (which could have swapped titles with Lost Lake without anyone noticing)—but Mr. Auburn only gives us a series of painful encounters minus the relief of humor or insight. This is a play written on autopilot, assembled from the corpses of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill with some scraps picked up along the way from Edward Albee and Sam Shepard. At one point, Veronica tells Hogan, “I’m sick of listening to you complain,” which invites some obvious, joking comparison to the play itself, but even that stock critical response seems like more effort than Mr. Auburn deserves. This is complacency at its most infuriating.
Which is a shame, since both Ms. Thoms and Mr. Hawkes are first-rate. Normally when you see actors of this caliber going at it for an hour and a half without a break, they sleepwalk through their curtain calls, force sleepy smiles and struggle to pull themselves up from their bows. Here they stroll out as if they hadn’t just performed in a play—and indeed, I wonder if, once they get backstage, they will remember Lost Lake for any longer than we will.