Rajiv Joseph is best known for "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," a formatively ambitious Pulitzer Prize finalist that starred Robin Williams on Broadway. By contrast with a work that ranges across Iraq and features the narration of a tiger, "The Lake Effect," the new Joseph drama at Silk Road Rising in Chicago is a one-set, three-character, conventionally structured, I-never-knew-my-father drama that never leaves a little Indian restaurant in Cleveland.
Nonetheless, Joseph's rich storytelling abilities — under the direction of Timothy Douglas — are enough to pull you into the story.
The set-up is intriguing. One frigid night by Lake Erie, a genial African-American gentleman, Bernard (played by Mark Smith) enters the restaurant in search of his regular meal and some conversation with his close friend, the longtime owner. But he finds instead Vijay (Adam Poss), the owner's son, who is as oblivious to his dad's relationship with this Bernard, as Bernard is to the existence of this son. The patriarch remains upstairs, unseen throughout the play, as the two men try to figure out the game being played by the other — not to mention their respective benevolence, or lack thereof. It's quickly revealed that Bernard has been placing bets on the Cleveland Browns for Vijay's dad. But that's not necessarily why the restaurant is in trouble, since the old man seems to be winning. Just as the son is puzzling over that matter, Vijay's sister, Priya (Minita Gandhi) shows up at her dad's sickbed. So what's her deal?
Before long, it starts to feel like this play is exploring one of the more emotional of the traumas and questions that often surround parents with estranged (or merely absent) kids. Who has their best interests at heart? Their kith and kin — or their longtime friends whom their kids often dislike?
Joseph, though, has other fish to fry in his Cleveland curry house. Not the least of those issues is the struggle of the well-educated children of immigrants, who might reject the careful, small-business ways of their parents, and surely do not share their accents, but who inevitably remain tied to their family in ways they struggle to fully process. When they have to sort out the affairs of the ailing parents, all of this comes, crashingly, into play. There long have been dramas about the struggles of the American-born children of a nation of immigrants, but these matters now are moving to the second generation of a different population of immigrants.
You're never ahead of this prismatic play, which reminds me in places of Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts," but nonetheless manages to be very distinctive. It's especially admirable in its sense of balance — Joseph is no mere sentimentalist taking down ungrateful yuppies who don't respect their roots (although he lands a few punches), he's also chronicling some of the more paranoid and understandably closed-off tendencies of that first generation of immigrants and arguing, I think, that some separation is better for all concerned.
Frankly, this premiere Silk Road production of "Lake Effect," although intriguing, is not up to the high quality of the script.
It starts out well enough, with Smith evoking some of the necessary air of mystery and Poss evoking his character's understandable confusion. But as things progress, this 90-minute show becomes very cool to the touch and there are great swaths of dialogue here that feel flat, repetitive, remote and lacking in nuance. At times, the actors seem to stand there and unleash their lines. At other moments, they wander without sufficient purpose around the prosaic physical environment designed by Dan Stratton. These are all deeply vulnerable characters, and the issues in play are not only complex in their exploration of race, class and education, they're also intensely personal. That last quality is what one misses the most. Love and loss scramble everything.
When: Through April 26
Where: 77 W. Washington St.
Running time: 90 minutes
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