Jeff isn’t a bad guy really; he’s just had a string of rotten luck. First he got kicked out of the Navy for smoking dope on duty, then it turns out that his new girlfriend is a prostitute and oh yeah; he lost a bunch of money in a card game, sending the loan sharks after him. But he’s turned over a new leaf. Trying to make good decisions and plan for the future. He’s even got steady employment now, as a lobby security guard in a middle income high-rise building in New York City.
Jeff is also the central character in Ken Lonergan’s 2001 play Lobby Hero, a wickedly clever dramedy that smacks heavy issues of moral relativism up against a giggle-fest of easy flowing comedy. One minute we’re laughing at lighthearted comedy, the next we’re squirming in our seats wrestling with ethical issues of police cronyism, an apathetically biased justice system, gender power plays and the depths we’ll descend to in the name of clan loyalty and self-preservation.
It’s a lot for one show, but if anyone can pull off this kind of dual edge social satire, Lonergan can. Known to most these days as the writer/director of the Academy Award winning Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan has been plying his particular talent in both film and theater for some time now. That talent, the one that shows up no matter which medium he’s working on, is his uncanny ability to create ultra-realistic characters and dialogue. To make the action we see so utterly believable that we never even think to question that this is the way things would go.
In Lobby Hero, Lonergan turns our plausible eye to a man that most people pay no attention to: The guard that sits in your building, letting people in and out. But Jeff is no cellophane man. He’s an overly chatty, wisecracking but amiable guy. His running at the mouth gets him into hot water often, but just as often his easygoing humor gets him out of the mess he created.
All the action takes place in the apartment lobby and the street outside (gorgeously rendered by Ryan McGettigan) and it’s in these spaces that we watch Jeff and the play’s other three characters engage in their own morally questionable shades of gray.
There’s Jeff’s boss, a self-proclaimed square with a rigid set of professional and ethical standards. But when his thug of a brother gets arrested for a violent crime and claims as an alibi that he was at the movies with William instead, William struggles with what to do. Not really sure if his brother is truly guilty of this particular crime and incensed by the apathy of a legal system that seems destined to send him to jail out of incompetence, corruption and good old fashioned racism, William bends his principles and vouches for him. It’s a huge deal, William abandoning his principles, but perhaps not as big a deal as his telling Jeff all about the whole situation.
You see, Jeff has a super duper crush on Dawn, a rookie cop whose partner Bill is both nicely helping William get his brother off and not so nicely screwing Dawn over at the same time. Actually Bill was screwing Dawn over even before William’s brother came into the picture. There’s been a fleeting romantic moment between the two that Bill is using to both control and punish her in the most misogynistically creepy way possible. It’s all in the name of making her a cop he says and if she doesn’t like it, well she can be sure that no one on the force will take her side when he’s done with her.
All Jeff needs to do is tell Dawn about William’s brother and she can get back at Bill. Jeff should help her out, right? But can he trust that she won’t screw over William in the process?
Lonergan makes sure that the dialogue propelling these spirals of betrayal forward flows like a seasonal spring runoff, but in this production it’s up to Co-Directors Kim Tobin-Lehl and Jennifer Dean to rise to the high naturalism bar. Wisely they choose an unfussy style that champions words and ideas over action, letting their superlative cast have at without any unnecessary flourish. The result is electrifying.
As Jeff, Adam Gibbs dons a harmless “who me” smile as he pokes fun at William and blathers smittenly at Dawn. It’s easy to laugh with and at him and we do for much of the play. But when his friendly chatter makes way for something more nefarious, Gibbs mumbles and hesitates and shrugs his prattles in such a painfully shameful way that we’re almost sorry for him. STOP we want to yell like at a child about to run into traffic.
Joseph “Joe P” Palmore’s William is an expert duet between professional authority figure and anxious wrong-doer. As William tries to impart life and career advice to Jeff, Palmore puffs up like a man showing off his feigned sagacity. As a man about to lie for his brother, Palmore’s stress shows out of every pore. He is a good man, we know. Palmore makes sure we’re on his side even when his behavior doesn’t deserve it.
No one does tough girl better than Chelsea Ryan McCurdy. Her Dawn is all female appropriation of male physicality. The way she stands, the way she rubs her nose, the hand gestures. Not only has she got New Yorker down, but she is cop through and through. But it’s the way she sounds that really grounds her performance. Rapid fire delivery of lines in anger and stunned cadence when bullied by Bill show incredible range and helps ramp up the drama to stunning proportions.
Among this killer cast, it’s Drake Simpson as Bill that sticks with us most. Bill is the one with the smallest shade of goodness and so Simpson gets to sink his teeth into the play’s most disturbing and off-putting moments and he does so with heart pounding calmness. Meaning our hearts pound in anger and suspense as he calmly threatens and belittles. Lonergan gifts Bill with the show’s two most shocking moments, one describing his self-serving views on female police officers and the other wooing, then threatening Dawn. Simpson handles both expertly, showing that real tension comes not from a raised voice but rather from eerie laid back control.
In getting us to watch his characters fall from grace while rationalizing each step along the way, Lonergan has employed the getting the dog to take the medicine trick – namely disguising the bitter pill into a tasty piece of cheese. We laugh and laugh and laugh some more during Lobby Hero until suddenly we aren’t laughing anymore. Suddenly we’re faced with a morality play that will have us debating issues with our seatmates over drinks after the show.
It’s a nifty trick, this. There is in fact no hero after all in Lobby Hero. But then there isn’t a real villain either. Lonergan gives us a world where no one actually means to do harm to anyone, but shifting circumstances forces each character to behave in ways that serves his or her selfish purpose.
Is there anything more imminently human than that? Once you’re done laughing you can talk about it among yourselves.
Lobby Hero continues through June 3 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For tickets visit 4thwalltheatreco.com or call 832-786-1849. $29-$49, $23 senior, $15 student. Pay what you can Monday May 29.