The one-man show “Ham Lake” makes excellent theater out of almost nothing at all. Twentysomething thesp Sam Rosen, who co-wrote this 80-minute monologue with playwright Nat Bennett, sits under an unchanging spotlight and wears clothes he might have picked up off his bedroom floor. There are no credited designers or even a stage manager: only a torrent of words. In some ways, theater this elemental is the biggest kind of risk, since auds have no distraction from a weak performer or sloppy writing. But when storytelling connects as it does here, we’re reminded how enthralling it can be just to hear someone talk.
Co-produced by thesp Josh Hartnett and staged in the cramped downstairs bar at the Soho Playhouse, the production has the intimacy of a private conversation.
Both writing and acting start small, so at first it seems Rosen’s unnamed character is making idle conversation instead of crafting a story. Within the random chatter, however, there are enough intriguing details to prick up our ears: This young man was recently stranded on a wintry Minnesota highway at 3 a.m., but how, we might wonder, did he get there in the first place?
“Ham Lake” rewards our attention by slowly revealing the structure beneath its rambling veneer. The more we learn about the night the young man describes — how his ex-girlfriend may have abandoned him on the road; how he had to rely on an emotionally distant father for help — the clearer it becomes that this yarn has purpose.
By exhibiting control of their material, the creative team prove they deserve our trust as they ask us to listen to one character speak for so long.
Rosen’s perf evolves as expertly as the script. At the beginning of the story, he’s all misplaced braggadocio, describing his life with the ignorant swagger of a kid who prides himself on hiding his intelligence and sensitivity beneath adolescent conformity. But he’s describing this particular night because it changed him, because it made him learn a hard truth about his own arrogance.
As he finally faces himself, Rosen strips off his cocksure mask to reveal a complex, vulnerable character. His transformation gives believable impact to the script’s catharsis.
Director Ian Morgan, who recently helmed the less sophisticated one-hander “A Spalding Gray Matter,” shows more nuance here. He helps Rosen find a striking physical vocabulary, which involves pantomiming the actions of key verbs and phrases. Rather than distracting from the story, these gestures enhance it, playing like the natural motions of an enthusiastic speaker.
Morgan also chooses the right time for stagier elements, such as when the young man stands from his chair and crosses the stage in a fit of remorse. Such light touches of artifice clarify the play’s meaning and, ironically, give more honesty to its aching observations.