Haunting family mysteries play out in ‘Lake Effect’

The way playwright Rajiv Joseph peels back layers of lies and obfuscation to examine complex relationships is as masterful in his latest play The Lake Effect” now at TheatreWorks, as it was in his “The North Pool,” which the Peninsula company world-premiered in 2011. (San Francisco Playhouse has produced his “Animals Out of Paper,” also an astute look at relationships, and his more fanciful and equally entrancing “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”)

In “The Lake Effect,” a three-hander that premiered in Chicago and is sensitively directed here by Giovanna Sardelli (as was “The North Pool”), two troubled, American-born siblings arrive at the small Cleveland restaurant (excellent, detailed set is by Wilson Chin) owned by their Indian-immigrant father.

Sharp-tongued, accomplished Vijay (a wonderfully brittle Adam Poss) came from Wall Street, because his long-estranged father Vinnie informed him he’s selling the restaurant, which he owned for 40 years, as well as the apartment upstairs where he lives and where the kids were raised.

As far as Vijay can tell from studying the ledger, his father is completely, and mysteriously, broke. The more down-market Priya (Nilanjana Bose, skillfully mixing entitlement and neediness) arrives shortly thereafter.

By now, dad has died, and everyone has a different idea of what killed him. “Everyone” includes Bernard, the African-American who wanders in on a snowy night claiming to be Vinnie’s best friend; he says that Vinnie saved his life. As played by Jason Bowen, Bernard is an appealing blend of blithe cheeriness and vulnerability. Bernard, it seems, knows way more about Vinnie than the siblings ever have known; among other surprises, it seems their tightwad dad has been gambling, with Bernard managing his bets.

Little by little, the siblings’ long-held assumptions, and eventually Bernard’s too, are upended, in ways that are disturbing and convincing. (But no spoilers here.)

The conflicts among the characters build steadily in a tightly structured series of significant revelations that always materialize at the exact right moment, and without a wasted word. Joseph braids in humor as well, and Sardelli’s expert cast beautifully captures each nuance.

Joseph does not attempt to tie up every loose end or unanswered question. The deeply affecting drama plays out just like real life within the context of our multiracial, multigenerational, immigrant society: full of unanticipated complications, unresolved problems, haunting memories and, along the way, new and enlightening perspectives.


The Lake Effect

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Tuesdays-Sundays; closes March 29

Tickets: $19 to $74

Contact: (650) 463-1960,

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