A coming-of-age tale often features a defining moment in an adolescent's life that crushes his or her innocence, catapulting the youth into the cruel world of adulthood. Co-written by Nat Bennett and the play's monologist, Sam Rosen, and currently playing at the SoHo Playhouse, Ham Lake is in that genre but with a twist. Rather than focus on an adolescent, Rosen portrays a 22-year-old who is driven to self-examination after a cruel trick by his ex-girlfriend leaves him freezing and stranded in a Minnesota field at Ham Lake. Though this character seems a little old to realize the fun and games of childhood are over, Rosen gives a convincing and very charismatic portrayal of a twenty-something male who has maintained his childlike naïveté a little longer than most people.
Whether Rosen's monologue is autobiographical or pure fiction is never revealed. It is billed as being "so outrageous that it must be true" when it is not outrageous at all but rather completely believable within its context. Rosen's character (never named) is exactly the kind of man who would be attracted to the girl and visa versa. The explosive fights in their relationship seem completely natural given the collision course they are on.
Rosen delivers the monologue with a perfect comic tone and timing. His energy level is contagious, and his childlike enthusiasm is so captivating that you almost hope the tragically immature character he portrays does not grow up into a boring, jaded adulthood. But between the laughs are moments of poignancy, times when Ham Lake feels more like an in-depth character study than a riotous monologue.
The girlfriend, Tanya, and Rosen's character lead sad, empty lives with broken homes, boring jobs, and no real aspirations to change their lot in life. To compensate for their humdrum existence, they have loud, raucous fun when they are together, often ending a night of verbal sparring with passionate sex when it looks as if one may dump the other.
But the laughs wane and then cease altogether when hard facts about the pair's background are revealed. The boy's mother abandoned him when he was a child. His father raised him the best he could, relating to his two sons on a buddy level with camping trips and dirty jokes. Tanya has a 4-year-old daughter, an abusive ex-boyfriend, and a night job serving drinks in a strip club. With their breadth of problems, they each need someone strong to lean on. Leaning on each other only causes them both to collapse.
Adding to the problems is the boy's father. Though he loves his sons, he is unable to relate to them as a parent or role model. He does not even seem aware of the abusive relationship that has defined his son's life until the day he calls from Ham Lake asking for a ride home. When the father shows up in his car, the boy finally tells him everything that has been going on. But it is all ignored by the father, except when he reveals he was once in a similarly abusive relationship. Frustration outweighs humor in this moment, when the opportunity to break a destructive family cycle is lost, possibly forever.
As entertaining as Rosen is in his portrayal of a childish twenty-something, there is no masking with laughs the circumstances that have made him this way. In fact, when the older brother finally tells Rosen's character that he needs to grow up, the younger brother lingers over the words as if hearing them for the first time.
Ham Lake does not conclude neatly with promises of a brighter future and better days ahead. The ending feels heavy, making things seem a little more bleak than when the story began. One can only hope that one day something or someone will come along and push the young man in Rosen's monologue forward before his future becomes as cold and empty as a field at Ham Lake.