Aurora Theatre’s production of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero turns out to be well worth the three years of somersaults Director Tom Ross had to perform to bring it to Berkeley.
It’s a funny and seemingly simple production which actually raises enough ethical issues to keep you arguing for a significant time after the last lights have dimmed. Perhaps one of the nicest things about the play is that the ideas aren’t thrust down your throat; it can take a while to realize just how many ethical quandaries are raised during the performance.
Each of the four quite ordinary New Yorkers who constitute the characters find themselves caught between different rocks and hard places—some of them connected, some not. And the question of what each can or should do about their issues is not one that most of us would wish to face.
The action takes place at night in the lobby of an upscale New York apartment building. A clever piece of staging gives the illusion that the audience looks directly past the security guard’s desk through a window into the street. This permits the audience to watch and hear some of the action—largely between two police officers—when they are out of the guard’s presence.
Jeff, the security guard (well-played by T. Edward Webster), is a young guy making some kind of effort to get his life together. He sees his job as a security guard as a step up in the world, although he’s much too much of a fly-weight and far too social to be a good fit as a night guard in a solitary lobby. He’s not really a man you’d want to put too much weight on in an emergency.
It’s his boss, William, whose integrity and values are most deeply challenged during the night. William ( completely realized by Brent St. Clair) has been the “good son” in his family, the one with ambition and habits of hard work. He’s proud of himself and tough on other people who don’t live up to his standards. Self-righteous is probably the right word for William.
To his total dismay he finds that his “no-good brother” has been arrested for, and is quite possibly guilty of, a particularly disgusting rape/murder. Even worse for William is that his brother told the police that the two of them were together at the movies at the time of the crime.
At first William is determined to stick to his own standards of honesty of which he is so proud and to refuse to cover for his brother. Then he discovers that the guy will be represented by an attorney who is so totally incompetent that he actually confuses him with another case. The situation is made the worse in William’s eyes because they are African-Americans. He is convinced that his brother will not get a fair trial.
It is the play’s first, as well as its central ethical struggle. But the other characters have major issues of their own.
Howard Swain does a powerful job as Bill, the longtime policeman who is responsible for the training of his partner, the anxious young rookie, Dawn. Bill is absolutely convincing as he switches unhesitatingly from one version of truth to another, completely different one. He is a man who is always convinced that he is right, even righteous. It doesn’t matter that he is clearly creating an entirely new “truth” from the one he pronounced minutes before; it is a terrific portrayal of a man who is completely lacking in insight.
As played by Arwen Anderson, Dawn is one of the funniest characters in the play. The contrast between Dawn’s small, delicate appearance and her tough guy police style is a delight.
At three months on the job she tries to make every syllable out of her mouth be absolutely nothing but“police talk” and almost succeeds. Those syllables, by the way, are pronounced in the heaviest New York accent you will ever encounter. Dawn’s hero-worship of her double-dealing partner and total lack of insight traps her into her own “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quandary.
In Lobby Hero Kenneth Lonergan has achieved an extraordinary goal—one frequently attempted but almost never beyond nit-picking critical complaint. He has actually succeeded in creating a genuinely funny play—peopled by essentially superficial characters—which raises quite important, and even lingering, philosophical issues.
Some of us would have sworn that it couldn’t be done.