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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Lobby Hero is Lonergan's smoothly plotted crowd pleaser. The entanglement in a murder investigation by a young security guard working the midnight to eight a.m. shift in a nuts-and-bolts Manhattan apartment building entails enough laughs to rival some of Neil Simon's early comedies.
As in all his work Lonergan paints a vivid slice of contemporary life. And while, unlike the more weepy than funny Waverly Gallery, the emphasis in Lobby Hero is primarily on humor— a morality play tucked into the comedy that will leave you with a few issues to think about after you're done chuckling.
Jeff, the guardian of the lobby has much in common with Warren, the bumbling late teen in This Is Our Youth, and Terry, Laura Linney's twenty-ish brother in You Can Count On Me. All three of these young men are magnets for trouble— nothing monumental, but enough to have them teetering on the brink of permanent screw-up status. All are well-meaning, though at first glance not interesting enough to make you go out of your way to befriend them; and yet, courtesy of Lonergan's talent for characterization, they turn out to be engaging enough to have you rooting for them to get their lives together.
Glenn Fitzgerald wisely doesn't try to copy the slow-motion, veiled moodiness of Mark Ruffalo's Warren in This Is Our Youth and Terry in You Can Count On Me. But he creates his own loopy Lonergan guy. His Jeff has the delivery of a seasoned comic and is often hilarious without saying anything at all. Yet, underneath the goofy persona he shows glimpses of a wistful yearning for stability.
The title of the play correctly focuses on Jeff but Lobby Hero is neither a star vehicle nor this one young man's story. Instead it is a nicely textured group portrait with all the characters fully realized and evolving like a musical with duets, trios and an occasional quartet.
The playwright has cleverly paired his characters so that there's the tension of one-upmanship in each pairing: Jeff is coupled with William the captain of the security staff (Dion Graham, a most effective uptight straight man to the more relaxed Jeff. He was last seen in Not About Nightingales wearing the more ominous uniform of an armed guard in a prison ). A self-assured NYPD veteran Bill (Tate Donovan) is partnered up with Dawn (Heather Burns), a recently appointed rookie. Jeff and William. Jeff and Bill. Jeff and Dawn. Dawn and Bill. William and Bill. Jeff, William, Dawn and Bill. The plot is charged by the alternating currents of these human configurations.
In the first of four scenes, Jeff and William do a machine-gun paced comic duet that establishes their characters and sets up the complications to follow. Jeff hasn't been on the job (or any job) for very long and tends to make jokes and needle William. ("Isn't it stupid that you're the Captain when there are no other ranks?"). William is a straight arrow who dresses Jeff down for his tendency to be lax about company rules. But because he's anxious about his less upstanding brother who's currently in serious trouble with the law William confides in Jeff even as he castigates him.
No sooner is the law mentioned, than we meet the NYPD couple. Tate Donovan, who's terrific as the fast-track cop, might be tagged as the villain of the piece with his smooth superiority and penchant for making his own rules — that includes letting his junior partner cool her heels in the lobby while he visits a friend named Jim who turns out to be a lady of less than impeccable morals; it also means helping William to protect his brother from the consequences of the gang shooting of a mother of three.
Donovan is, as Jeff puts it, "a complete scumbag." But being a Lonergan "scumbag" that doesn't make him monster awful and a part of the inherently decent Jeff admits to a certain envy for the way Bill lives on the edge. Think bad Bill as in Bill Clinton in a cop's uniform and you've got the picture. As for Dawn, when we first meet her she seems a likely candidate to be a Monica Lewinsky with her freshly minted police badge and a deliciously grating NooYawk voice. Having Bill in the picture doesn't stop our Lobby Hero from making a move on her. And no wonder. Ms. Burns is adorable and very nearly steals the show from her colleagues.
I won't go further into the plot developments except to tell you that neither Dawn nor Jeff are pushovers and that everything that happens is inextricably tied to the moral dilemmas posed by the murder investigation in which William's brother is involved. The play's few ice box elements (what filmmakers call the unanswered loose ends that go unnoticed until you're home a getting a snack from the refrigerator) hardly matter since director Mark Brokaw steers the terrific cast in and out of Allen Moyer's stylishly designed anywhere-in-Manhattan lobby (there's even an elevator with a functioning door) without a dull moment.
LINKS TO OTHER REVIEWS OF KENNETH LONERGAN'S WORK
This Is Our Youth
The Waverly Gallery (Berkshire premiere)
The Waverly Gallery (New York)
You Can Count On Me