Jonathan J. Miner
Good, evil and loyalty refuse to be clearly defined by titles such as boss, employee and cop.
In 2011, The New York Times offered high praise for Kenneth Lonergan's dramedy Lobby Hero, calling it one of the best new American plays of the century. Strollers Theatre's production (through April 13 at the Bartell Theatre) shows why this play has earned such glowing reviews.
The story centers on Jeff, a deadbeat trying to make good in his new job as a lobby security guard. Jeff was thrown out of the Navy for smoking pot on duty, but he thinks he's done nothing wrong. Well, nothing that wasn't being done by everybody else. His "bad luck" was being discovered, and he easily excuses himself the crime and his own culpability.
The situation is a fitting entry point for Lonergan's play, which deals primarily with power and moral ambiguity. Lobby Hero's other characters include William, Jeff's straitlaced boss, who has given him a second chance at life, and two neighborhood cops, the street-smart Bill and his newbie partner, Dawn. While some parts of this production are played for laughs, like a Neil Simon play would be, drama ensues when William reveals an erupting personal dilemma: His brother has been arrested for murder. While it's possible this was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he might, in fact, be guilty. Either way, he wants William to vouch for his alibi, which further muddies the truth and implicates William as an accessory to the crime.
Lonergan is less concerned with truth than the slippery, ever-shifting slope of morality. On an even playing field, choices might be simpler. But Lonergan paints a textured universe, where race, gender and class have a powerful effect on the choices William makes. Even the police, who should be the arbiter for all that is fair and good, commit crimes against each other and society. Good, evil and loyalty refuse to be clearly defined by titles: boss, employee, security guard, cop. In this play, only the uniforms are black and white.
Strollers Theatre should be applauded for taking on such a nuanced script. Though Lonergan is well known for writing plays and screenplays, including You Can Count on Me and Gangs of New York, Madison audiences rarely have the opportunity to see such a layered new play. The performances are staged and directed nicely. Young Michael Andersen (Jeff) is particularly impressive in a tough role, an ADHD anti-hero with little but his fast-talking shiftiness to define him. Matthew Korda's Bill is also believable and engaging. Considering the difficulty of the material, and how hard the actors work to bring it to life, the thoughtless set design was disappointing, but that was the main flaw of the night.
What responsibility does Jeff have to expose the boss who has taken him under his wing? Is telling a lie occasionally the right moral choice? And do Jeff's actions ultimately make him what he longs to be, a "hero"? Lonergan isn't looking for easy answers or decisive truth. Instead, he asks the audience, like Jeff, to consider the questions.