All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Jeff speaks innocently enough.
That’s the problem. In Act One of Kenneth Lonergan’s play, Jeff inadvertently babbles something that triggers a woman’s scorn and sets all of “Lobby Hero’s” subsequent plot twists in motion. In Act Two, he clumsily hints at information that deeply affects the lives of the four characters Lonergan puts on stage. Jeff’s naivety and stupidity is a catalyst that starts the author’s knowing examination of morality, motivation, loyalty, and duty.
His exploration is fun in Matthew Decker’s production of “Lobby Hero” for Theatre Horizon.
Perhaps too much fun.
Decker has his talented cast play Act One as if it was a loose comedy. Jeff’s loose lips unleash an almost farcical reaction from two police officers whose personal and professional relations are affected by his random comments and observations. You see the domino effect of suspicion and betrayal Jeff’s nattering foments, and are amused by the tumult that ensues, but none of it seems important. You don’t take the consequences seriously because Decker’s staging plays so lightheartedly. Coincidences that arise seem more situational, the kind that would generate an ‘oh-oh’ on a ’50s sitcom laugh track, than matters that speak to individual honor and responsibility. Decker’s production doesn’t hint at the depth and more somber tone that will come to light in Act Two.
Watching the two acts is like watching two different plays. Both are enjoyable, but the first seems to lack something that would give it more texture than seeing a man caught in flagrante delicto by another woman who thinks he’s cheating on his wife with her. It’s a mild yok fest that doesn’t go beyond the entertaining and only barely to there. It makes “Lobby Hero” look dismissible, a pleasant comedy, deftly timed to reveal a new salvo when one fades, but without enough heft to make you more than routinely curious about what the second half has in store or to invest you much in any of the characters.
These characters are well-played, but they have no dimension. They are figures on a potentially dramatic landscape and seem to be pawns to Lonergan’s comic devices. Consequences occur, but they don’t seem to reach further than the simple disappointment of one individual at the behavior of another. Rachel Camp, in what will prove to be a breakthrough role, and Akeem Davis, who never gets as cartoonish as his castmates, provide some moments of gravity, but Brian Ratcliffe, as Jeff, and Kevin Meehan, as a policeman, remain entertaining but also typed and superficial.
That changes when lights come up on Act Two. Jeff has seen what happens when the seemingly harmless gossip he spouts to pass time (and perhaps make time with Camp’s police officer) contains information that touches on a hearer’s life. He has been reprimanded by his supervisor, Davis’s William, and been lectured in no uncertain terms by Meehan’s officer.
It doesn’t stop Jeff. He continues to be a blabbermouth, more dangerous while trying to couch what he’s saying as conjecture than he was when he just chattered away in presumable innocence.
By now, Lonergan and Decker have shown more is at stake. The information Jeff has revealed has caused a rift between Camp’s and Meehan’s cops, who share a beat. It sets off a power game in which Meehan’s Bill threatens to scuttle the police career of Camp’s Dawn, a rookie on her six-month NYPD probation while partnering with Bill. (Notice Lonergan has named both superiors a version of William and called the police newcomer Dawn.) Jeff’s allegedly fictional blab, one a Police Academy graduate like Dawn sees through immediately, involves something William said to him in confidence but which can help Dawn in her cat-and-mouse battle with Bill.
All of a sudden, the frivolous and comic take on serious overtones. It’s wonderful, in particular, to see Ratcliffe’s Jeff realize when he has put himself in an unescapable corner and replace his non-caring, blatantly foolish approach to life with a sense of guilt, coupled with fear he might be fired, assaulted, or jailed by one of the people whose lives his lack of discipline has upended.
Lonergan is exploring trust on many levels, including the public’s trust in the criminal justice system’s ability to mete out justice. He takes a situation that seems only to affect the two officers, who are having an affair one of them thinks is based on true love and the other knows is a routine lark, and builds it into one that affects everyone.
Lonergan is looking at corruption and the collusion that allows it to flourish. With a skill playwrights have plied since the dawn of drama, he convinces you to side with the people who are damaging the justice system the most. If they get their way, a man who murdered a woman after raping her with two accomplices, will go free to live among others on New York streets.
His technique for doing this is by making you rue the consequences the more finagling characters will face if caught more than you worry about the reality of having a mindless killer-rapist at large among the populace.
If you read through the lines, Lonergan does a better job than Decker of making his entire play ominous in spite of its comic byplay and seemingly light consequences in Act One. Once Decker catches up with the author, the Theatre Horizon production sets up the moral dilemma plainly. It not only illustrates the damage Jeff does, possibly to public security in the long run, it lets you chart the tangled web deception weaves and challenges you to back less attractive horses over the ones who are doing the most harm.
A poster in the Theatre Horizon lobby asks playgoers to cast their vote on which character is the “lobby hero” of Lonergan’s title. The reality is none is really heroic because each works by ulterior motives that might lead to a favorable outcome for society — might — but more accurately tracks human behavior that drives us to commit petty indiscretions, veer from the truth, compromise justice, and root for results that may not be in our, or anyone’s, ultimate interest.
I didn’t vote in Horizon’s poll, but I thought a lot about whether any character is worthy of a ballot. I decided if I did vote, it would be for Camp’s Dawn because, she, though out of jealousy, spite, and revenge, is the agent whose actions will keep a predatory murderer in jail instead of releasing him, perhaps to kill and rape again, via an acquittal based on a lie.
It doesn’t matter that the initial lie is based on fraternal sentimentality. The results are too grim to be considered.
Yet we consider them. The character that seems the most honorable and has the most admirable approach to life, Davis’s William, is the one who chooses to lie to protect someone he loves. William spouts all the stereotypical crap about his brother’s rough childhood, during which he received no guidance and wended towards the comfort and camaraderie of gangs while William found strength from within and resisted such avenues. This logic influences William while it makes our eyes roll. Yet, we like William and empathize with his love for his brother, for whom is concern is genuine and heartfelt.
That sets one moral dilemma neatly afoot. Do we want William to succeed in saving his brother from jail, or do we want something to happen that will prevent that but not harm William in any way except emotionally?
Do we back the corrupting conspirator, or do we root for the whistleblower whose actions lead more solidly to the public’s benefit?
Other moral dilemmas ensue because William discusses his conundrum, and his decision about it, to Jeff.
The audience is in on William’s mistake. Lonergan is masterful at setting up his plot and foreshadowing material that will affect us.
Then there’s the escalating battle between Bill and Dawn. It goes beyond a lovers’ quarrel of betrayal of the trusting by the ill-intended. Bill makes their squabble professional by threatening to keep Dawn from passing her probation and earning her badge. She, in turn, tells him she is not beyond letting the department know he spends part of his work time having sex with a woman whose apartment is on his beat. Bill is on a list to get a detective’s badge. Each officer can place the other’s job in jeopardy.
You first side with Dawn. She is the one being betrayed and the one who wants to make something of her disappointment by not agreeing, when Bill offers, to forget it.
See how human behavior, and the idea of not making a light wave into a tsunami, influences everything? Bill is wrong, but you don’t care a lot about the way in which he’s wrong. You feel for Dawn and the wound to her romantic innocence, but, like Bill, you wish she would nurse her wound, chalk it up to experience, and move on.
Not that Bill is a prince. He’s a married man sleeping with at least two other women. He hints early on he may be on the take in various ways, and he is a bully to Jeff when he could have handled matters more man-to-man.
Yet, in Lonergan’s first reversal of where sympathy should be, you want Dawn to be quiet and let Bill do as he pleases, as if you care about what that is.
You also want Jeff to be quiet. You are not proud of William for consenting to help his brother by providing an alibi that will cause charges against him to be dropped, but you like him, understand his point of view, and want to protect him from any repercussions of lying.
Jeff cannot be quiet. That is established all through “Lobby Hero.”
Not only is he a blabbermouth, but he has his own plan in motion. He is attracted to Dawn. He goes out of his way to impress Dawn. His betrayal of William occurs because he is trying to get Dawn to notice him and agree to date him.
Dawn puts two and two together quickly, but her reason for acting on her conclusion is the damaging effect it will have on Bill, who vouched for William’s integrity when asked by prosecutors if William’s alibi story could be trusted.
See, no one acts on the merits of the big case Lonergan keeps in the background but has always been an elephant in the room. A woman was murdered. Three men are responsible. One is William’s brother. Police officers who know William know the situation. Dawn refers to pictures of the slain woman. Bill reinforces William. Jeff knows and blurts the truth. Dawn hears it and seizes on it to discredit Bill. It’s the relationship of the characters on stage towards each other than sets their, and our, emotions going. Yet a heinous crime lurks in the corner.
The juxtaposition of the immediate situation and the looming reality turns Lonergan’s play into a thought-provoking delight, seriously minded while firmly rooted in comedy. (Although less comedy than Matthew Decker opts for in the first act.) Decker catches up with the blend in the second act, so Horizon’s “Lobby Hero” becomes more involving, engrossing, and controversial as it proceeds.
Decker’s cast makes it a pleasure to listen, pick up clues, and see the morass lying and maneuvering will create.
Brian Ratcliffe makes Jeff simultaneously endearing and irritating.
Jeff is a needler. He pushes the limits of what William will tolerate from an employee, and of what Dawn can bear while waiting for Bill in Jeff’s lobby, yet there’s a callowness to him.
Jeff is a jerk, but a loveable one. He seem innocuous while spouting the time-honored philosophy of the ambitionless wastrel and indulging his knack for annoying people.
Ratcliffe rolls with the punches in Act One. He entertains more than he builds a character. There doesn’t seem much core to Jeff, but that might be the point.
Jeff’s an obviously careless person. Ratcliffe’s shirt tail is always coming out of his uniform, which is the same as William’s but doesn’t seem as clean, neat, crisp, or professional.
Ratcliffe’s Jeff is an aimless 27-year-old goot holding the latest in a series of mindless jobs. He has no intention of trying to excel and move up the security company’s ranks as William did. You can’t trust him to live up to the commitments he says he wants for himself, let alone to do more than collect a paycheck for a minimum of effort.
Since Jeff takes nothing seriously, all he can do is joke and spout nonsense. He’s gregarious and bored to death when sitting at the lobby desk alone. Once he has an audience, it’s off to the races saying anything to trigger conversation. He doesn’t understand his jokes sometimes lead to the serious.
Ratcliffe rises to Jeff’s penchant for idle chattering. His Jeff is oblivious to propriety, obtuse about social structure, and prone to tease, taunt, and rationalize in addition to being incapable of censorship. He is nonstop in starting, forcing, or provoking conversation. All he has on his midnight-to 8 a.m. shift is time, and he wants it to pass.
He keeps up this chatterbox image until Jeff is cornered by Dawn in the second act. This causes a change of tone that, by this point, is welcome but too late. Jeff is sobered by the idea he has been transparently inept at presenting a hypothetical situation to Dawn. The character with no real purpose or real spine has to grow up and face the consequences of his big mouth. In truth, Jeff has done society a favor with his blabbing. In the context of “Lobby Hero,” he has committed an unforgivable sin, and despite some bravura and more of his rationalization, the Jeff you see in the last third of Decker’s production feels the weight of his misstep and is influenced by it. Ratcliffe plays this transition well. It saves his performance from being a total cartoon that may have been charming, but was empty. Ratcliffe’s early Jeff is someone you love but don’t like. He’s a job holder with no dedication, one of the banes of American existence. His later Jeff is no more likeable and much less loveable, but he is chastened, and Ratcliffe conveys that will skill.
Rachel Camp proves her mettle as a dramatic actress with her performance at Dawn.
From the New York accent to Camp’s purposeful, unfeminine walk, you see the trappings of Dawn, but Camp goes way beyond the physical and visual. She endows Dawn with reality. Camp is the first performer on Decker’s stage to give her character dimension and individuality. She is more than her costume, strut, and dialect. You see Dawn’s vulnerability beneath the blank, but watchful, expression she has as a cop.
There’s an everywoman approach to Camp’s portrayal. Her Dawn can stand for a lot of young women who have worked hard to attain jobs once closed to women — When “Lobby Hero” debuted in 2001, it was rarer to see a woman police officer on a beat. — and intends to work harder to fulfill and keep it.
Camp’s attitude is that of a police officer. While you briefly see her responded as an inexperienced girl might to Bill’s philandering, she marshals her emotions and responds to the situation by asking questions and making straightforward comments like a cop would. This is a serious woman who confronts situations by airing them. She expects the honesty and directness she personifies. Even when her motives are questionable, Dawn aims for the right thing. For justice. She doesn’t blink at consequence. Camp lets you see all of that.
I liked the consistency of Camp’s performance and the way she kept Dawn a tough women who knew her way around the streets while showing occasional awkwardness as a rookie or as a young woman betrayed by a veteran cad. Dawn’s challenge of Bill is brave and done in a way to make the guilty feel guilty. Her interrogation of Jeff is astute and dogged. She has no time for shenanigans, as a woman or as a police officer. This is a no-nonsense person who will make anyone who hurts her pay on some level. Bill has deceived her romantically, dressed her down meanly, and threatened to ruin all she has worked to attain. If she takes prisoners in this skirmish, it will be Bill in handcuffs for lying to superiors. But Dawn doesn’t want prisoners. She wants Bill’s destruction. Luckily, she can get it while achieving the best outcome for the public.
The discipline, consistency, and subtlety of Camp’s performance impresses. She clearly shows you Dawn growing, and wising, up.The actress, known mostly for musicals, proves she can give depth and variation to a dramatic role and turn a character that could be functionary into a complex, interesting being who commands our attention and elicits various reactions as she goes from being a patient partner to a primary agent of justice.
Akeem Davis continues a skein of remarkable performances with his portrayal of William.
Even when William allows sentiment to take him from his usual path of sticking to rules and playing by the book, there’s goodness and discipline to Davis’s character that persuades you to understand and forgive his rare trespass.
It is William being the primary corrupter of justice that makes you tend to be as complicit as Jeff or Bill would be about his lie. You’re taken aback and angry at Jeff when it’s clear he’s going to blab the secret William entrusted to him. We, on some level put William’s life above that of a violently killed woman.
This is because Davis endows this character with gravity and probity. He, more even than Dawn, has striven to achieve a place in life that seemed impossible. Unlike his brother, William rose above the temptations of crime, easy money, and gang affiliation. He got a basic job and performed it with such excellence, he is the youngest ever appointed captain at the security company that employs him and Jeff. What’s more, William has a conscience, one we see him wrestling with when he first mentions his brother’s arrest to Jeff, and one that makes his confess his misdeed to Jeff because he has to tell someone, and Jeff, while obviously not the perfect choice, is the only one William can find who has no stake in his brother’s life and no professional obligation to thwart criminals.
William can get testy with Jeff, annoying officious even, but Davis always shows his penchant for wanting everything taken seriously and done with perfection.
Davis is brilliant at carrying and conveying William’s burden when he learns his brother used him as an alibi and must ponder whether to uphold his brother’s story or tell the truth and abandon his brother to his adjudicative fate. Davis seems even more beleaguered when he explains the details of his decision to Jeff. A man who is hard-wired to do right and follow rules breaks them in a way that might deny justice to a slain mother of three, and David shows you how hard it is for that man to live with himself. And how much harder it would be to face his family, particularly his mother, if he didn’t reinforce the alibi.
Few actors have shown the range of Akeem Davis over several seasons. This performance advances his position of being one of the finest actors in the region.
Kevin Meehan’s Bill changes the least of all the characters, and Meehan wisely plays him in one tone from the beginning.
Meehan’s Bill is the guy who knows where the elephants lie down. He is a creature of the streets, and he knows every angle it takes to manipulate situations to his liking. He is a cop, and he uses that persona to be alternatively a pal and a bully. In one person, he embodies the good cop-bad cop combination that allows for charm one moment and temperamental strong-arming the next.
Throughout Decker’s production, Meehan has an edge. It is remarkable how he can be so tough and so comic at the same time.
Meehan also shows you Bill as a person of instinct. He can be sheepish about betraying Dawn before he realizes she is not accepting his guff. He can’t resist threatening Jeff with harm once he learns how Dawn learned of his infidelity. He gleefully plays the powerbroker and is cool enough not to get too rattled when Dawn makes it seem his jig may be up.
Maura Roche provides a typical lobby, the hallmark of which is the decorative glass and wrought iron door to the apartment building that doesn’t seem to have as fancy or elegant an interior. Alison Roberts did a fine job designing the police and security company uniform. I like that Davis looks commanding in his uniform while Ratcliffe looks like a slob in his. It almost seems that Roberts designed Ratcliffe’s outfit to be too big for Jeff’s frame so he would swim in it and look more unkempt and less trim than the actor looks off-stage and in most roles. Maria Shaplin’s lighting takes account of times of day and of a situation’s mood.
“Lobby Hero” runs through Sunday, March 13, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, in Norristown, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. (No performance is scheduled for Wednesday, March 9.) Tickets range from $44 to $34 and can be obtained by calling 610-283-2230 or visiting www.theatrehorizon.org. Grade: B+