Thursday, August 7, 2003

We could be heroes …

By Marty Fugate
Arts and Entertainment Writer

Is it possible to be a hero without being a macho jerk? For Jeff (Sheffield Chastain), it’s more than a theoretical question.

Like millions of baby boomers and Gen-Xers, Jeff grew up under the shadow of a heroic father, a Popeye-like icon who rescued 23 of his fellow sailors from a sinking ship in the Korean War. As a hero, Jeff's cold-warrior dad was the genuine article. But as a dad, the man was a not-so-heroic, uncommunicative, hard-drinking bully.

Jeff tried to follow in his father’s better footsteps but got kicked out of the Navy for smoking pot. Dad stopped speaking to him and died a few years later. Jeff bumbled around and eventually got work as a night security guard in a New York City apartment building, all duded up in a pseudo-military uniform, a “lobby hero” and nothing more.
Jeff still wants to take a stand, put his life on the line and accomplish something, just like dad. But he doesn’t want to be a macho jerk.

You find this out, because Jeff is one of those guys who can’t stop talking. He first pours his heart out to his boss, the security captain, William (J. Bernard Calloway), an upright, by-the-book, black man who’s landed this position of authority through sheer force of will. At first glance, William is an ideal role model and surrogate father to Jeff – he’s heroic and still a decent guy. But his decency and heroism may have limits.

You soon discover that William's not really listening to his puppy-like underling. William is preoccupied because his brother, accused of taking part in a nasty murder, has asked him to help cook up an alibi. He figures his brother is innocent, but figures the racist system will find him guilty anyway if he doesn’t lie. Maybe, in this case, doing the right thing means doing the wrong thing. In a moment of exhaustion, he drops his guard and blurts this out to Jeff. Jeff just figures that, when the time comes, William will go by the book and puts it out of his mind.

At this point, two tough-talking New York City cops enter the picture. There’s Bill (Jonathan Hammond) a heroic, fearless crime fighter (nicknamed “Supercop”) who’s also an adulterous skirt-chaser and perfectly willing to lie to back up his buddies and blackmail anybody who’s not his buddy; he’s probably the spitting image of Jeff’s dad. His rookie partner, Dawn (Tina Frantz), idolizes Bill and has already slept with him. They’ve just returned from an incident where Dawn knocked the lights out of a raging drunk with her nightstick. The action was justified, but Bill’s her only witness. Not to worry, he tells her. He’ll back her up. Bill also agrees to back up his friend William, and help get his brother off the hook. Whether he’s lying or telling the truth for his friends and partners doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s a question of loyalty. It’s what you do.

But when it comes to his partner, Bill’s loyalty is a one-way street. He pretends to build up Dawn's confidence, but he really holds her in contempt; his pep talks are just a way of getting Dawn in bed — and she’s not the only woman he’s fooling around with. Bill’s perfectly willing to withhold his testimony if his partner doesn’t continue her sexual favors and keep her mouth shut about his various misdeeds.

Kenneth Lonergan sets this up with well-constructed action and honest dialogue. He succeeds in creating believable characters and making you care about them. “Lobby Hero” reaches out and grabs you in the first act. If there’s a test of a great play, that’s it.

Unfortunately, the second act was a bit of a letdown. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Jeff never really takes a heroic stand – he stumbles into doing the right thing because he can’t keep his mouth shut. Dawn takes a stand, but it’s partly out of spite. The truth comes out and nobody (whistleblowers or whistleblowees) gets fired, jailed, or pays much of a price. Assuming he’s innocent, even William’s brother may still be freed.

This is not to say it’s not still entertaining and often wildly funny. But is it possible to be heroic without being a macho jerk? The play poses the question but doesn’t answer it.

The performance itself is heroic. Director Kate Alexander pulls off some genuine magic in the act of transforming the small set of lobby and brief strip of street outside into the illusion of the real world. Within that illusory world, Chastain is hilarious (with shades of Steve Buscemi), as the motor-mouthed, rubber-limbed also-ran; Calloway (with shades of Samuel L. Jackson) makes you believe in his character as a good man in a very bad situation; Hammond is side-splittingly funny as the two-faced, egotistical, adulterous “Supercop,” especially when he’s doing that “I don’t have a real marriage to speak of” speech to Dawn; Frantz convincingly draws you in her portrayal of a cute young woman in a man’s world fighting to be seen as something more.

I would’ve liked more resolution, but that’s not Lonergan’s style; exploring the worlds of ordinary men and women is. Resolution or not, “Lobby Hero” is a deeply moral play. It’s also deeply funny. The characters strive with the issues of life and death.

There’s a very good chance that they may not get it right.

But you still walk out laughing.

“Lobby Hero”
at Florida Studio Theatre
Reviewed Aug. 7

Originally published in The Longboat Observer