Stage: Wednesday, April 17, 2003
Morality Tale

Stage West’s production\r\nof Kenneth Lonergan’s\r\nLobby Hero lets its actors wrestle ethics.


laywright-screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan is co-credited with writing the script for the movie Gangs of New York. I’m not sure what he actually contributed to Martin Scorsese’s disjointed and generally dreadful version of history, but that screen “epic” contains nary a scintilla of the profundity on display in Lonergan’s stage work. Take Stage West’s absorbing current production of Lonergan’s Lobby Hero. What transpires in a New York apartment lobby over one night and the next day has more to say about the trickiness of human nature than a sprawling cinematic glare at the whole of Scorsese’s Civil War-era New York.

Stage West should be proud that it gave Lonergan his North Texas debut. I’ll decline too detailed a synopsis of Lobby Hero because part of the power of this show is its slow accumulation of details and circumstances. Suffice to say, the lives of four virtual strangers interconnect suddenly and intimately inside the titular lobby. They are loquacious, twentysomething security guard Jeff (Justin Flowers); his demanding and hostile supervisor William (an appropriately tight-wound Nicholas Cormier III); and two police officers — respected and feared “Big Bill” (Jeff Schmidt) and his nervous rookie partner Dawn (Dana Schultes). This quartet becomes involved in various dramas: the investigation of the rape and murder of a young nurse; an internal affairs investigation into an incident of suspected police brutality in which a man lost an eye; and the love life of an unseen tenant of the building where Jeff works, who has multiple liaisons daily.

The playwright weaves all this into a witty and sharply pointed whole that presents a series of bewildering questions without devolving into a college lecture on Platonic philosophy. When is it right to lie and when is it mandatory to be honest? Is it possible to live a good, merciful life and have an unflinching code of right and wrong? Are ethical absolutes and kindness compatible? The playwright has grounded most of these issues in the character of Jeff, the chatty security guard who loves basketball and women in police uniforms but isn’t fond of work. Director Jerry Russell made a revelatory decision when he cast the lanky young actor Justin Flowers. Still a college student, Flowers nails Jeff with such casual precision — and in the process brings all the playwright’s complex concerns into crystalline focus — that it’s time to recall what that tired critical adjective “brilliant” really means. He’s a mesmerizing talker without betraying a hint of self-awareness.

A good performance is either “finding the truth in a lie” or just plain deceit that’s well-executed, right? Well, check out the scene in which Jeff Schmidt as Big Bill tries to trick his female partner into thinking he cares for her while simultaneously lying to himself that this scenario is helpful to her development as a police officer. You could call this a lie within a lie within a lie, but I call it great acting — Schmidt’s pretty-boy good looks might’ve been a hurdle to playing a scary cop, but his well-honed talents have taken him to a new plateau I’d never envisioned from his past performances. Likewise, I initially thought Schultes was a little too lovely to be convincing in that NYPD outfit — but then I realized this was a prejudice any attractive woman would face in her pursuit of respect, and Schultes made the character’s perilous shifts in confidence utterly convincing.

Stage West’s production takes a short while to gain a good head of steam, but that’s mostly because you don’t initially realize how many dimensions that the actors, director Jerry Russell, and the playwright are about to lead you through. At its core, Lobby Hero is a play about ethics rather than morals — and in our current conservative climate, it’s a pleasure to see a debate about the intrinsic value of doing the right thing no matter what without introducing the threat of divine wrath as a factor. This production is heartbreakingly earthbound and centered in Justin Flowers’ amazing performance. He may resemble a friendly loser, paralyzed by lack of ambition. But he looks a lot more like most of us — thinking people who’re well-intentioned but paralyzed every day by the array of ethical choices and their potential consequences.

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