by Michael Bowen

Playwright Kenneth Lonergan has remarked that in Lobby Hero (at Interplayers through March 27), he "was interested in writing about a situation where the deck is stacked against somebody... who's just trying to do their job and be a human being at the same time." His comments center on Dawn Wilson, a rookie police officer, but he's also describing Jeff, the easygoing security guard on the graveyard shift who is the play's focus.

Sitting in the lobby of high-rise apartment building in Manhattan makes Jeff (Craig Dingle) privy to the secrets that people in transition reveal, even to strangers. The inside/outside nature of Heather Graff and Richard Peterson's set -- diagonally split between lobby and sidewalk, nicely appointed but somewhat worn -- helps convey the characters' two-sided natures. Scott Lockwood's sound design hints at the traffic and sirens of the big city.

The lobby's middle-of-the-night hypocrites include Jeff's supervisor, William (Bob Williams), who's strict about enforcing rules on others, though his morality loosens up when it comes to family. The veteran cop, Bill (Rick Still) has a sterling reputation as a police officer, but whenever he's behind the scenes (inside this particular apartment building, for example), he manipulates and browbeats other people, bending them to his will. The young and inexperienced cop, Dawn (Melissa D. Brown) violates several workplace behavior standards, but she's also capable of doing the right thing, even at great personal and professional cost. The hierarchies that separate cops and security officers and the gender politics that divide men and women drive the slow-developing storyline.

Even Jeff lies on the job. Still, he's such a friendly guy that we tend to overlook his faults -- in the same way we overlook our own. Dwarfed by the desk he sits behind, outranked and outclassed by others, Jeff is the Everyman of this particular lobby. Flawed and uncertain, he's one of us.

Director Jack Bannon's program notes suggest that situational ethics suddenly become less abstract whenever we're pressed into real-life decisions. Lonergan wants to lay out such moral dilemmas within the flow of naturalistic speech, and he's good at it. But the way we all talk everyday is repetitive: We make false starts, we talk around subjects without really engaging them, and so on.

As a result, Lonergan mimics Chekhov, but without the poignancy or the poetry. He writes of little people, just living out their little lives when major decisions come crashing down around their heads. It's realism that becomes tedious and repetitive, with characters taking a long time to small-talk their way into larger debates. Lonergan's dramatic structure, moreover, too often stoops to a parade of exits immediately followed by entrances, then a two-person conversation, then another exit and entrance.

In the Everyman role, however, Dingle has the right friendly quality. He may have screwed up his life several times over, but he's still grinning. Unambitious, joking over serious matters, never quite sure why he does the things he does -- good or bad -- Dingle conveys Jeff's affability well.

As the supervisor, Bob Williams has a mousy, haunted quality that serves him well in playing a man who's proud of having risen so far up in the security-guard business -- but who suspects that life should have more to offer.

Melissa D. Brown's probationary cop has to flirt with superiors and strangers, then grow angry both at them and at herself. Brown hits the right emotional notes.

The best of this quartet of actors is Rick Still as the experienced cop, a man who makes use of his seniority in too many ways that aren't strictly by the book. Chin raised, eyes squinting, he struts into a room, sizes up everyone around him and finds them lacking.

Lonergan sets up a moral decision-making arena for his characters, then leaves matters unresolved. Lobby Hero throws questions right back at us: How would we react in the face of lies and injustice? After tonight's performance, when we go back out into the night, how will we resolve our own lives? Turns out our lives are unresolved, too.

Turns out as well that Dawn and Jeff are both lobby heroes. Both have to make decisions they never wanted to make and then live with the consequences. At the end, Dawn wonders, "How are you supposed to know if you're right and everybody else is wrong, or if you're just wreckin' your own chances?" Doing the right thing but still being in a minority -- is that what defines us, or is it merely self-destructive? Jeff's response highlights his own inexperience and passivity, but it also resonates with those among us who just sort of slide through life, evading responsibility: "I wouldn't know," he says. "I never tried to do anything before."

You take your shot -- and maybe (probably, like Jeff and Dawn), you get burned. But you try to get things done. Here, Lonergan has tried to write a morality play clothed in the humdrum of everyday speech. He succeeds only in part, but at least he -- and Jeff, and Dawn -- took their shots.

Publication date: 03/11/04

Juneteenth at Spark Central @ Spark Central

Sat., June 19, 12-7 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.