Playwright Kenneth Lonergan is, among other things, a poet of confused and disaffected youth. He's perhaps best known for writing and directing the film You Can Count on Me, which involves a young woman and her charmingly feckless brother -- played, respectively, by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. The protagonist of Lobby Hero is Jeff (Rick Stear), a security guard who got kicked out of the Navy for smoking pot, lives with his brother and considers it a triumph that he's hung on to his job for several months. He has vague yearnings to do something more with his life -- perhaps something in advertising. He's also mentally riffling through his small gallery of role models trying to figure out if it's possible to have strength and integrity without being an asshole. Jeff is charming, funny and irritating in equal measure. He guilt-trips and manipulates; he empathizes with the other characters and periodically attempts to bond with them. He's an innocent betrayer and a calculating naíf.
But Jeff is only one of the four quirky, multi-faceted characters Lonergan has created in Lobby Hero. Williams (Terrence Riggins) is Jeff's boss. He's as rigid as Jeff is pliant. He believes in the rules. So much so that, as the play opens, he's just fired another security guard, this one two years away from retirement, for sleeping on the job. When Williams's brother is arrested for a robbery-murder, however, Williams finds his clear-cut ethical code challenged. And he makes the mistake of sharing his confusion with Jeff.
Then there are the two cops who periodically visit the apartment building. Dawn (January Murelli) is new on the job. She's just clobbered a drunk who she claims was charging her, an incident that's certain to be investigated. Her partner, Bill (Bill Christ), backs up Dawn's version of the story -- well, provisionally, and as long as it suits his purposes.
Lobby Hero Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 27, Jones Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Brimstone and TreaclePresented by Conundrum State Productions through November 22, Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, 303-601-2640.
There's a lot here about honesty, betrayal, loneliness, skewed self-awareness and the attempts people make to understand and reach out to each other, but the playwright's hand is light and deft. The script is crowded with moments of surprise and recognition. Above all, it's very funny. There's an exhilarating and entirely original rhythm to Lonergan's writing. His musicality reminds me of David Mamet's, except that his sensibility is far warmer and more sympathetic. And the rhythms don't draw attention to themselves the way Mamet's do, or rely as much on repetition. They just lift and animate the actors' speech. I imagine it's hard to deliver Lonergan's dialogue badly.
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Not that Stear, Riggins, Murelli or Christ would. All four of them give first-rate performances. Stear's Jeff is so blind, insecure, wrongheaded and charming that you can't decide whether you want to hug him or slap him. Murelli gives Dawn a dignified composure that contrasts well with the blustering and dithering of the male characters. But when Dawn unravels, she unravels utterly. In their completely different ways, Bill Christ and Terrence Riggins are riveting. Christ's character, Bill, seems to have no insides. He's like a parody of a cop, mouthing the kind of lines you hear on television, bullying and prevaricating, fluidly taking on whatever persona suits his circumstances at any particular moment. This man is both goofy and vicious. He does have his own code of honor -- and he believes in it with all his heart -- until he needs to dispense with it. The brilliance of Christ's performance lies in the fact that he gives this squirrelly character a kind of core, showing us the uneasy mix of insecurity and arrogance that animates him.
Terrence Riggins brings an almost tragic dimension to the role of Williams, exuding the closest thing this play has to gravitas. Williams's predicament is genuinely painful, and it adds a bass line to the music of the action. Riggins can communicate a world of existential sorrow with a look, a fumble at the door. I wonder if Lobby Hero would be as satisfying a play if a shallower actor played the part.
Directed by David McClendon and buoyed by the music of Dave Matthews, this is a wonderful production. Kevin Copenhaver's costumes and Charles R. MacLeod's warm lighting add dimension. Above all, there's a meticulously beautiful set by Robert Mark Morgan that makes the tiny Jones Theatre seem intimate rather than cramped; it gives the actors real freedom of movement. Every detail of the set coheres, from the glowing light sconces in the lobby to the dead leaves that have drifted to the edge of the sidewalk outside the apartment building.
As a critic, I find myself recommending plays for many reasons: because they're edifying, thought-provoking, intellectually stimulating; because you really should see a particular actor; because the singing is pleasant; because the evening illuminates something significant about our times or some aspect of theater history. I'm recommending Lobby Hero because it offers pure enjoyment. -- Wittman