Perhaps life is hardest when you have an ethical decision to make. Or it seems to be about ethics. But it also involves people you care about. Folks who are good people, but find themselves in a very uncomfortable squeeze and are trying to do the right thing as best they can see it. But the lines around that right thing seem to have blurred for them—and for you, too. At least a little. So what do you do?
This is the question Jeff, a middle-aged security/doorman guy in a rundown apartment building in New York, wrestles with in Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero, now onstage at Live Theatre Workshop. Other folks in his very small circle wrestle with it, too. In fact, there are so many horns of so many dilemmas played out here that they could constitute an entire brass section of an orchestra. Lonergan spins into a simple tale circumstances that inspire not-so-simple soul-searching.
Jeff (Cliff Madison) is the axis around which the story issues its challenges. From the outside he seems like your standard borderline loser. He was kicked out of the Navy, has no special skills and is renting a room with his brother's family because his debts have left him broke. His job is hardly fulfilling, but he is grateful to have it and needs desperately to keep it. He does have some good qualities. He aspires to have his own apartment and to find a way to a better job. He seems to have a good attitude and sense of humor, and is respectful of his boss and the balance of power between them. In short, he is a decent, though ordinary, man.
But ordinary people sometimes find themselves having to sort through some sticky situations. He knows that police officer Bill (Clark Ray) makes a regular visit to an attractive lady upstairs while he is on duty, and that Bill refuses to sign in and out, as is required for visitors. He knows his boss, William (Nick Trice), a conscientious man of high character, has confided that he has a brother in some very serious trouble and expects William to vouch to an alibi, and that William is in torment about this dilemma. Jeff learns that Bill's probationary partner, Dawn (Carley Elizabeth Preston), will not give him the time of day because she has a thing for Bill, although she doesn't know why she is waiting in the lobby for him—that Bill is making his booty call upstairs. And he knows Bill is a bit of a jerk, throwing his power around when it benefits him and unafraid to stretch the truth to protect members of his brotherhood, which extends to his new partner, who over-reacted in a scuffle with a perp, using excessive force that resulted in serious injury.
What's a decent, ordinary man to do?
Lonergan gives us a lot to think about. His play has serious intent, but his approach is light enough, tempering its heaviness with a few chuckles, that we don't get overwhelmed with it. And he creates in Jeff an affable, likable guy with a light-hearted sensibility, and that also helps us not to get mired in a morass.
LTW's production isn't great, but it is a good one. Trice, Preston and Clark each manage strong and credible-enough characterizations, and although we don't really invest a lot emotionally in them, they make the gnarly nature of life's awkward moral and ethical challenges clear for us. Lonergan has actually given these actors a tough job, because they seem to be more players in his puzzle, rather than captivating characters.
Jeff is the exception. We really do need to care about him, and Madison comes through. He has played various versions of this sort of character in numerous shows, and I'm sure he has to struggle to find a refreshing or unique approach to each characterization so that he steers clear of caricature. His performance here is strong enough to allow us to sympathize with his numerous conundrums. We do feel for the guy.
A couple of things struck me as strange about this character—the one written by Lonergan and interpreted by Madison. Jeff doesn't come across as particularly bright, and he tells us that he doesn't read much. Yet Lonergan has him use the word "ossified" as he tries to tease out where his duty lies. That seems quite odd for the character we have come to know. Madison may have had to deal with some inconsistencies drawn by Lonergan that were hard for him to reconcile.
Director Rick Shipman does a good job of making sure we understand the complexities of the story and that it moves along well. There was a lot of unnecessary blocking, however, where characters were moving across stage with no real reason, which was distracting and actually tended to dilute the tension in some scenes, disrupting momentum.
Richard Gremel's set works well, but the title page of the program indicates this is a "spacious lobby of a middle-income high-rise." What we see suggests a building that has seen much better days. He also manages to incorporate well a staging area that was necessary but a bit awkward for the small stage.
This is not the most polished production LTW has done, but it still is an effective one. Taking on the laws of justice and of ethics, familial loyalty, protecting one's own personal interests, trying to figure out what really is the right thing to do and why—Lobby Hero delivers a story that shows us even the simplest and most ordinary of us are called on to struggle with heart-wrenchingly complex matters. And in these situations, even the most modest of us has a chance to be a hero.