Lobby Hero

Outer Critics Circle winner and Oscar nominee Kenneth Lonergan writes fresh, original and funny dialogue, and these buoyant qualities give his four-person play about an emotionally rudderless security guard its unique energy. More serious aspects, which place the protagonist in a life-changing moral dilemma, build engrossingly and then begin to fragment, especially in a final half-hour of loosely connected incidents that don't deliver potent payoffs.

With:
Jeff - Nick Cordileone Bill - Mark Espinoza Dawn - Lauren Lovett William - J. August Richards

Outer Critics Circle winner and Oscar nominee Kenneth Lonergan writes fresh, original and funny dialogue, and these buoyant qualities give his four-person play about an emotionally rudderless security guard its unique energy. More serious aspects, which place the protagonist in a life-changing moral dilemma, build engrossingly and then begin to fragment, especially in a final half-hour of loosely connected incidents that don’t deliver potent payoffs.

Nick Fouch’s set, with its marble floors, suede chairs and steel-framed doors, enables viewers to fully absorb the constant movement of exits and entrances to and from a middle-income Manhattan high-rise.

At the center of this environment is Jeff (Nick Cordileone), likable but no hero, lobby or otherwise. He hides behind non- sequiturs and one-liners while enduring the wrath of his demanding supervisor, William (J. August Richards): “You have no interests … no wife and children … you have no ambition.” Cordileone nails the nebbish side of Jeff’s personality, poignantly capturing the yearning of a lifetime loser who feels he has more inside him than society, or his disappointed father, have ever acknowledged.

The monotonous, dead-end flavor of lobby life vanishes when smugly arrogant police officer Bill (Mark Espinoza) and his inexperienced female partner Dawn (Lauren Lovett) insert themselves into Jeff’s world. Bill, who has seduced the naively receptive Dawn, callously leaves her at Jeff’s front desk and runs upstairs to pinch time with a prostitute. Attracted to Dawn, Jeff’s blundering flirtatiousness includes alerting her to her lover’s betrayal.

Layered on top of this tense situation is William’s moral struggle after learning his brother may be responsible for beating a young nurse to death with a pipe while attempting to steal pharmaceuticals from a hospital. William is Jeff’s role model, a man who announces his integrity with every sentence, until he’s faced with the decision of putting family loyalty above principles and providing his brother with a false alibi.

Director Kirsten Brandt succeeds in creating viewer apprehension and maintains the play’s ambiguity, so that motivations are intriguingly out of sync with the actions of the characters. This is particularly true when Jeff decides to reveal the truth to Dawn about William’s cover-up of his brother’s crime: Aud must speculate how much of his revelation is based on a virtuous desire to do good, and how much on his desire to impress Dawn.

It becomes difficult to empathize with Jeff after he rats on the employer he has thanked earlier for his generosity and supportiveness. William’s decision not to fire Jeff is an equally unsatisfying story development, given that his whole self-image is built on maintaining moral standards, standards Jeff has fatally compromised.

Despite plot lapses, the actors are in peak form. Richards offers an ideal representation of the “good man,” who might have been permanently perceived as an exemplary citizen if fate hadn’t cruelly tested him. Of all the roles, his is the least flamboyantly theatrical, and he invests it with strength and heart.

Espinoza’s part is a study in contradictions — the cop who is clearly a capable professional, yet rationalizes his sexual activities. He’s alternately angry, self-righteous, apologetic and vengeful, displaying a skill that smoothly unites these attitudes. His persona has a threatening quality that suggests approaching violence, and it’s a letdown when that violence fails to explode.

Dawn is an even greater challenge for an actor, and the gifted Lovett brings desperation and combativeness to a character who flip-flops too much for complete conviction. The growing closeness that hints at a possible romance between her and Jeff seems artificial, and there’s so much ambivalence in her behavior that it’s hard to care about her eventual fate.

The play is structured to create expectations that someone, seemingly Jeff, will emerge a genuine hero. When no one does, the solutions — though honest and carefully worked out — feel emotionally soft and incomplete.

Lobby Hero

Old Globe, Cassius Carter Center Stage, San Diego; 225 seats; $55 top

Production: An Old Globe Theaters presentation of a play in two acts by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Kirsten Brandt.

Crew: Sets, Nick Fouch; costumes, Mary Larson; lighting, David Lee Cuthbert; sound, Paul Peterson; production stage manager, Diana Moser. Opened and reviewed May 26, 2005. Runs through June 26. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Jeff - Nick Cordileone Bill - Mark Espinoza Dawn - Lauren Lovett William - J. August Richards

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