Kenneth Lonergan hit the New York scene full force in 1996 with his play "This Is Our Youth," and the Hollywood scene by writing and directing the film "You Can Count on Me." His star continues to rise, and he's emerging as one of the most essential voices of his generation: a writer whose characters are drawn with almost unparalleled clear-sighted honesty.

Kenneth Lonergan hit the New York scene full force in 1996 with his play “This Is Our Youth,” and the Hollywood scene by writing and directing the film “You Can Count on Me.” His star continues to rise, and he’s emerging as one of the most essential voices of his generation: not a formal innovator — his plays are very traditional, very talky, small-cast serio-comedies — but a writer whose characters are drawn with almost unparalleled clear-sighted honesty. His stage work finally hits Southern California with an excellent production of “Lobby Hero” at South Coast, and that will be followed in June by “The Waverly Gallery” at the Pasadena Playhouse.

“Lobby Hero” focuses on Jeff, a young doorman in a Manhattan high-rise who’s quite typical of Lonergan’s soulful underachievers. What’s also quite typical is that the actor who gets to play the role, Kevin Corrigan of Fox’s “Grounded for Life,” has the opportunity to demonstrate a depth hitherto unimagined. Such opportunities are drawing bigger and bigger names to Lonergan’s casting list — Anna Paquin, Hayden Christiansen and Jake Gyllenhaal for example, will be starring in a London production of “This Is Our Youth.”

Corrigan delivers a charming performance as the extremely likable but lost Jeff, who is trying hard to get himself back on his feet after being kicked out of the Navy for smoking pot.

That event also severed his relationship with his father and left him in serious debt. So while being a doorman, or a security guard if one prefers, might not seem much of a challenge, to Jeff it’s his big chance to prove he can hold a job and to get out on his own once and for all.

He’s been given this chance by his supervisor, William (T.E. Russell), a young and ultra-responsible African-American who is serving as Jeff’s current role model. This is one of Lonergan’s most interesting qualities –he doesn’t just create fully dimensional characters, he provides them with interesting, multiedged relationships. That’s on full display here: William sees in Jeff a joker whom he can help be “serious”; Jeff sees in William a real adult who could use a laid-back friend.

Nicely calibrated by the actors — and likely to develop even more nuance during the run –their friendship becomes the crux of this play, as William confides in Jeff the difficult dilemma he’s facing. His brother has been accused of participating in a gruesome crime and has untruthfully used William as an alibi.

In the meantime, Jeff also strikes up a friendship, and he wishes more, with a rookie female cop named Dawn (Tessa Auberjonois). She visits the high-rise daily during Jeff’s overnight shift. She comes with her partner — and more — Bill (Simon Billig), and she can’t avoid Jeff’s chatter when Bill disappears for long periods of time with questionable purpose, which puts her in a dicey situation as well.

Everybody, in fact, gets stuck in a complicated predicament with no clearly proper choice. Sedate though it is, comic and seemingly nonchalant — like his characters — Lonergan’s writing takes on the everyday human conscience with a decided belief in goodness. In a very modest, uncontrived manner, “Lobby Hero” leaves behind a warm-hearted feeling.

Under Olivia Honegger’s direction, the play comes across with a nice clarity and builds properly to its pivotal moments of low-key emotional epiphanies.

Her direction has some rough edges to it — she hasn’t quite staged it with complete comfort, but she certainly activates the principal drama of the work, allowing the relationships to emerge as the central driving force. And in Corrigan, she’s got an actor with the natural raffishness to make Jeff pleasant company, even if, as everyone tells him, he can be really annoying.

Auberjonois, a South Coast regular, provides a memorable turn here, too, her character’s insecurity and bravado working hand in hand.

Honegger also benefits from an exquisite set by Tony Fanning, a very realistic creation of an apartment lobby that provides a variety of playing spaces in a work that generates its drama not from explosive stage action but from the small, and very compelling, individual battles of conscience.

Lobby Hero

South Coast Rep, Mainstage; 507 seats; $52 top

Production

A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in two acts, written by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Olivia Honegger.

Creative

Set, Tony Fanning; costumes, Amy L. Hutto; lighting, Tammy Owens Slauson; music and sound, Aram Arslanian; casting, Joanne DeNaut. Opened Feb. 22, 2002; reviewed Feb. 23; closes March 24. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Jeff - Kevin Corrigan
William - T.E. Russell
Dawn - Tessa Auberjonois
Bill - Simon Billig

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