As a playwright, you are entitled to stretch the boundaries of what is expected, so you can present incredible events as possible and even probable. This is why we have one famous play where children fly off to Never Never Land, and another where people who die can interrupt their dirt nap and come back to revisit a day in their past.
However, that license to create outrageous, over-the-top occurrences in a play can be abused. And so it is in The Lake Effect when playwright Rajiv Joseph asks us to believe that the Cleveland Browns could actually beat the Pittsburgh Steelers! In a game of football! And, not only that, he invites us to contemplate that a Clevelander would actually bet $7,000 on the chance that such an outcome would actually happen!
Joseph graduated from Heights High and has fashioned a stellar career for himself as a playwright. But given the above plot element, he is clearly desperate to establish his bona fides as a fabulist of the first rank. He should know that imagining a Browns win over the Steelers is taking one step too far into the realm of fantasy morphing into absurdity.
That said, The Lake Effect, now at Karamu House in a joint production with Ensemble Theatre, gets a lot of things right about its three characters. And it assembles a strong and pleasingly unpredictable story about family secrets and friendships that can occur in unlikely circumstances.
During a typical Cleveland snowstorm, a middle-aged, affable black man named Bernard enters his favorite haunt, a neighborhood Indian restaurant, to get a plate of lamb biriyani. But instead of greeting the owner Vinnie, he encounters a young Indian man behind the counter who, scowling, tells him the restaurant is closed.
This doesn't stop Bernard for a second as he takes off his winter coat and makes himself at home in one of the tiny establishment's mismatched chairs. Clearly, Bernard knows his way around and he wants to know who this Indian guy is, where Vinnie is, and why there's no plate of food on the way. The man, who eventually reveals his name is Vijay, is just as curious about Bernard, who seems more comfortable in the restaurant than he does.
Turns out, Vijay is Vinnie's son and he's in town because his dad said he was selling the restaurant and upstairs apartment — where Vijay grew up. Not only that, Vijay soon learns that Bernard has been placing Vinnie's NFL bets with a bookie, and Vinnie keeps winning even on the riskiest bets (see above). This makes no sense to Vijay, a Wall Street guy, who considers his dad a miser. So Vijay has been reviewing the restaurant's ledger and finds the business is flat broke.
Playwright Joseph is skillful as he peels away the truths that lie behind each of these men. Bernard knows more about Vijay's father (and his entire family) than Vijay does, revealing that Vinnie never even mentioned he had a son. On the other hand, Vinnie often talked about Vijay's sister Priya, who shows up a couple days later after traveling to Cleveland from her home in Florida.
In the second scene, a couple of days later, we learn Vinnie has died and now all the accounts are coming due. This is when the play reveals a secret about a mugging Bernard suffered in the past, a secret that resets the relationships in a compelling way.
The script puts a lot of issues on the table, and playwright Joseph manages most of them with aplomb. Bernard almost becomes a borderline cliche, the Wise Black Man who sees through artifice and puts everyone on the right path (paging Morgan Freeman, for the film version). It doesn't come across as hackneyed, thanks, in large part, to LaShawn Little as Bernard. Little exudes such a natural, off-handed ease with himself and others that you immediately gravitate to this slightly unbelievable character.
In the role of Vijay, Ammen T. Suleiman tries to break out of his one-note role but only succeeds at times, as his perpetual frown and slouch rarely allow him to explore other facets of the prodigal son. And at times, the script doesn't help. At one point, Priya says to her brother, "You think you're all Mr. Mystery Man, but you're not." And then a couple seconds later, she adds, "I mean, who are you, Vijay? I don't know." So, which is it?
The essence of Priya (an effective Natalie El Dabh) is also something of a quandary, as Vijay is just catching up on her backstory, thanks to the revelations Bernard has helpfully provided. A slight digression about Priya and her husband's marine salvage business is played for laughs (Vijay: "You're pirates?"), but it's a lame attempt.
Director Celeste Cosentino keeps the pacing brisk, and Joseph is too good a playwright to let the whole thing collapse. Ultimately, the story of this dysfunctional Indian family — tied together through the kindness of a random stranger — is both intricate and reasonably satisfying. But there are gaps in the narrative that keep The Lake Effect from landing with maximum force.