The title of Kenneth Lonergan’s play might have you imagining a caped crusader who keeps the entryways of buildings free of crime and rescues hapless suitcase-toting visitors from evil villains. If so, you’re ripe to appreciate the sly irony Lonergan brings to this fiercely engaging play about crime, punishment, and the people whose job it is to keep us secure.
Lonergan’s central character is Jeff (Gabriel King), a 27-year-old sadsack “security officer” who is trying to scrape his life back together after a series of unexceptional failures. His job is anything but superheroic: he works the night shift at a mid-scale apartment building in New York, logging visitors in and out of the building and fighting mainly to stay awake so that his rule-bound supervisor, William (Rico Romalus Parker), doesn’t fire him. The most exciting thing that happens on his shift is a regular visit by a pair of cops, the veteran Bill (Patrick Jordan) and his rookie partner Dawn (Jessie Wray Goodman), the latter of whom is a primary object of Jeff’s romantic and sexual fantasies.
You might be forgiven for expecting something explosive to happen that requires these two pairs of cops and rent-a-cops to band together to cope with some high-stakes crisis. But the fireworks here are all interpersonal. Lonergan’s craft as a playwright is impeccable: he carefully winds up a set of conflicts that bring all four characters into each other’s orbits during the first act, and then sets their choices and actions ricocheting consequentially off each other in the second.
Thematically, the play touches on a number of issues that are topping the daily headlines, including workplace sexual harassment (a battle Dawn is fighting), abuse of force by the police, the scarcity of good jobs for the working class, and the maltreatment of black defendants in the criminal justice system. The tendency of those in power to close ranks around their own gets some exploration here, as does the ugly, testosterone-fueled behavior of men in groups.
Mostly, though, Lobby Hero is an at times quite comic exploration of what happens to people who find themselves on the back end of bad choices. As the story develops, the characters each find themselves maneuvering to save their own skins, which leads to shifting alliances and unexpected betrayals. Lonergan’s themes are serious, but his touch is light, and the barebones ensemble straddles the line between earnestness and comic delivery with finesse. Director Melissa Martin uses the small space to good advantage – the playing style is naturalistic, and the actors bring emotional nuance and psychological depth to the character work. Jordan plays the uber-entitled white male cop Bill with sensitivity, opening space for us to understand (and maybe even sympathize with) the motivations and actions of an otherwise fairly unlikeable character. As Dawn, Goodman threads a difficult needle – the character is a tough cookie who nevertheless has a lot of insecurities, fears, and vulnerabilities, and Goodman shapes her emotional journey with subtlety. Parker does an masterful job of embodying the moral dilemma into which William is thrown during the course of the play and also of conveying the simmering anger of a man who thinks he has mastered the system only to find himself thrown into its cogs. Anchoring this production is Gabriel King, who is absolutely superb as the nervous-energy-charged Jeff. King’s comic sensibility is exquisite, and he is both charming and a little cringe-inducing as a motormouth whose lack of filters not only inadvertently triggers the central conflict between Dawn and Bill, but also gets his boss William into hot water with the law.
By play’s end, as Jeff emerges from his existential crisis looking like someone ready to start thinking about maybe taking some baby steps to perhaps take charge of his life, you may find yourself rethinking what it means for someone to be a hero – or, at the very least, you may find yourself starting to get on board with Lonergan’s ironic deflation of the label. For it’s through that diminishment that Lonergan gets at the heart of what it means to really offer a compelling dramatic conflict – that is, that even small and quiet lives are full of moments of recognition and reversal worthy of our empathy and engagement.