Kenneth Lonergan’s scripts for the stage and the screen (in 2017, he won an Oscar for “Manchester by the Sea”) are character studies – tightly focused meditations about small people who live their small lives in a minor key and are tormented by inner conflict.
His plays, in particular, are driven by the idea that the conscious and the unconscious mind are often at odds. “A large part of yourself,” he said in a recent New Yorker interview, “is hidden from yourself and comes out in all sorts of strange and interesting ways.”
In his “Lobby Hero,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2001 and is currently on stage at Blank Canvas Theatre, it comes out in the impassioned ramblings of four blue collar characters whose words are often two steps ahead of their heads and one step behind their hearts.
The play takes place in the lobby of the kind of Manhattan apartment building where the front desk is manned by a uniformed security guard rather than an urbane doorman. Jeff, who is currently on duty, has high aspirations but, as his grave-yard shift suggests, no actual ambition to achieve them. Benjamin Gregg brings a nervous energy and palpable undercurrent of inadequacy to the role, which perfectly offsets the occasional and wonderfully unexpected moments of insight and perspective the playwright supplies.
Orbiting around Jeff is his highly regimented and very serious supervisor. William seems to have all the answers when it comes to how his young subordinate can improve his life by living with integrity, but is himself grappling with whether to provide a false alibi for his deadbeat brother, who has just been arrested for murder in a justice system stacked against black men. Darius Stubbs allows his character’s melancholy, sense of powerlessness and emotional exhaustion to seep through his hard professional persona, which is remarkable to watch.
The building’s lobby – realistically rendered by designer Patrick Ciamacco – is frequented by two cops, an intense rookie trying hard to survive her first few months on the beat and her unpredictable senior partner, who is making her survival particularly challenging. Kelly Strand’s deer-in-the-headlights take on Dawn, the newbie fresh out of the academy, is endearing while the thinly-veiled narcissism, sexism and air of entitlement that James Alexander Rankin bestows on the veteran cop, Bill, is effectively infuriating.
In the course of this two-act play, each of these characters will either do the right thing for the wrong reasons or do the wrong thing for the right reasons as they grapple with who they are behind who they appear to be.
Director Anne McEvoy taps the dynamic tension created by these moral and psychological incongruities while helping her superb cast find all the humor and humanity in their characters’ untidy existence. And, as witnessed during the dress rehearsal of this production, she is mostly successful pushing through the occasional tedium that exists in a script that offers an abundance of high risk/high reward writing but which places little action and even less narrative closure on the stage.
The intimate scale of this drama is a good fit for Blank Canvas’s small performance space and big artistic aspirations. And the prose – which serves up some of Mamet’s swagger and Pinter’s natural rhythms – is a gift to this ensemble of fine actors and those who attend their performances.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio Society of Professional Journalists best critic.