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The Force 

An irresistibly powerful Hero takes on police corruption

Wednesday, Dec 3 2003
The hero of Kenneth Lonergan's painfully funny play is a security guard named Jeff, just bumped from the Navy, who watches the lobby of a middle-income high-rise in Manhattan. He doesn't pack a gun. He doesn't save anyone's life. In fact, he's kind of a screw-up. He's a "lobby hero" only in the sense that his bumbling honesty brings down a neatly ordered pack of lies and exposes corruption within the NYPD. He didn't mean to do it! And he regrets most of the consequences.

Since it premiered two years ago in New York, Lobby Hero has been a quiet success in theater after theater, from Costa Mesa to London. I can't find a production that didn't get largely good reviews – which is odd – and Tom Ross' local premiere at the Aurora is no exception. The reason so many theaters have picked it up may be superficial (Lonergan has done well in Hollywood), but the script also plays like brisk early Mamet, and Ross' four actors are strong.

T. Edward Webster portrays Jeff as a diffident, easily bullied guy, talking out of turn, punctuating his meager ideas with finger thrusts. He's a pathetic but lovable motormouth. "My last girlfriend was a tollbooth taker," he tells his boss, "and she intimidated the hell out of me." Which is too bad, because now Jeff has a crush on a female cop named Dawn (Arwen Anderson). Dawn has no use for security guards. She's smitten with her gruff, experienced partner Bill, who visits a "friend" in the high-rise almost every day and leaves Dawn hanging around the lobby.

Jeff's boss William has a more serious problem. His brother may have ripped off a hospital for some drugs and killed (or participated in killing) a nurse. The brother wants a false alibi from William. Both men are African-American; there's a question of loyalty and solidarity against the system. Should he lie? William makes the mistake of posing this question to Jeff.

Brent St. Clair plays William with a steady, thoughtful gravity that distinguishes him from Jeff's callowness. Differences in power are all-important here, and the main reason Lobby Hero works so well is that the actors delineate them carefully. Dawn has more authority, as a cop, than Jeff, but as a female rookie she's a mess of insecurities. When Jeff mentions that "an actress or a model or somethin'" lives in the apartment Bill keeps visiting, Dawn feels cheated, and gives a halting but compelling speech about the mixture of loyalty and harassment other (male) cops show her in the precinct room.

The man with the most power in the play is Bill, a stereotypical bad cop who cares more about protecting his friends than catching criminals. Howard Swain invests him with a terrifying swagger, but saves him from flatness by adding a layer of insecurity. Swain's loose jowls, behind a thin goatee and thinning pompadour, make him look dangerously unstable. Bill's authority rests on temper, not truth, and that's where Jeff has him cold. I won't ruin the ending; it's enough to say that Jeff's heroic motives are mixed. He blows Bill's cover about the upstairs "friend," for example, out of spite: "I just hate seein' guys like that get away with stuff like that because that's the kind of thing I'd like to do if I could only figure out how it's done!"

The plot can be overcomplicated – Lonergan sets everything up like a house of cards – and the acting here is sometimes stiff, especially in scenes between St. Clair and Swain. Morality plays about telling the truth can also feel a bit thin. These are details, though. Lobby Hero has a real, irresistible force. Richard Olmsted's realistic set – gray brick and ugly carpeting, a window looking across at a painted photo of a New York city block – complements Lonergan's flair for dialogue, and dialogue may be the whole point of the play:

"I hate any situation where there's a lot of guys makin' noise about what a bunch of morons they are," jabbers Jeff, by way of flirting with Dawn.

"You'd love the police force," Dawn deadpans.


"No, I don't think I would."


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