There’s something sad and lonely about a summer cottage in winter, a forlorn quality that permeates helmer Daniel Sullivan’s sensitive production of David Auburn’s “Lost Lake.” Like the dilapidated cabin designed by J. Michael Griggs, the odd couple in this two-hander have the bedraggled air of tired, worn-out souls. A considerable amount of compassion has gone into parallel character studies of the owner of the cabin and a potential renter, roles played with uncanny empathy by John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”) and Tracie Thoms (“Cold Case”). But there are only rumors of action — and it all seems to be happening outdoors.
The sublime arts of acting and directing are on excellent display in Manhattan Theater Club’s presentation of a play developed at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference and subsequently seen as part of the Sullivan Project at the University of Illinois. But such a lot of work for such a minor work, even if it does happen to be a new play by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“Proof”).
The plot is so insubstantial, you couldn’t wrap fish in it. Two hard-luck strangers — the sad-sack owner of the decrepit cabin in the woods and a would-be tenant from the city — forge an unlikely but touching bond over the course of a miserable week’s vacation. The character developments are modest and unfortunately revealed in offstage events that can’t be told without spoiling the limited moments of suspense.
But what acting! Hawkes, whose eccentric career on stage and in film and television ranges from touring in “Greater Tuna” (no kidding) to a memorable turn in the lawless land of “Deadwood,” gives an astonishing perf as Hogan, the good-for-nothing loser who sort of owns the cabin and is desperate to rent it out for hard cash. Hogan is a shambling wreck, and Hawkes’ highly physical approach to the character begins in his bones. His backbone is curved into the defensive hunch of someone waiting for the whip to fall. His breastbone has caved so far into his chest, it’s a wonder he can breathe. And the bones in his wrist are so weak, it’s an effort for him to raise a bottle to his lips.
Hogan may be a beaten-down wreck, but Auburn has a grave affection for the character, gifting him with the kind of shrewd native intelligence that city folk tend to underestimate in their country cousins. Not so Hawkes, whose extraordinarily insightful perf unmasks his battered heart and his kind soul, both of which are touched by Veronica (Thoms), an exhausted single mother in desperate need of a week’s respite from her personal troubles.
Thoms, a consummate pro who played a compassionate cop in “Cold Case,” applies that generous quality here to the character of Veronica, an overworked mother who is so determined to give her children a wholesome week in the country she’s willing to overlook Hogan’s shocking limitations as a landlord. Specifically, the filthy cabin, the dirty clothes, the lack of hot water, the broken stove, the unsafe swimming dock, the disconnected telephone and the broken space heater.
You have to wonder why this woman is willing to put up with the likes of Hogan and his mysterious ways, and in due time the scribe gently and firmly resolves all questions about the characters and their motivations. But none of these revelations can pass for dramatic action, and in the end, all that’s left to take home are memories of two very fine performances in a play that doesn’t really exist.