Review: ‘Lobby Hero’ at 1st Stage

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The imposing lobby of a tony Manhattan apartment building—all sleek gray marble, glass, and stainless steel—commands the spacious 1st Stage stage. Sound Designer Neil McFadden has created a transporting outdoor urban soundscape, and Set Designer Kathryn Kawecki and Lighting Designer Mary Keegan have created the sort of  immense, personalityless interior where anonymous comings and goings fit right in and anything too personal would be improper. And it is here that we  become privy to the  lives of four ordinary working people who could not afford to live in this building. Two are employed in security; two are on the police force. And they are about to collide in a riveting revelation about loyalty and lies.

(l to r) Aaron Bliden and Matthew Sparacino. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
(l to r) Aaron Bliden and Matthew Sparacino. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Kenneth Lonergan’s award-winning Lobby Hero, which premiered in 2001, is a flashback to that time just before 9/11 when two building  security workers and two cops on the neighborhood beat could believably hobnob without video surveillance cameras all around. Instead it is we the audience who are entrusted to espy the inner dynamics of their goings on—and what an explosive plot we see unfold.

It all begins quite quotidian. A black security-firm supervisor pulls rank on a white lobby attendant. A seasoned male police officer pulls rank on a young female officer-in-training. The confrontations as scripted are credible but scarcely rise to eloquence. The four actors at work on this huge set bring an electrical charge to each exchange; yet there seems in the play text itself to be an insistent commonplaceness, a mundane flatness, a sense of being in no hurry to prick up our ears and clench our minds around the compelling conflicts of conscience at its core.

But hang in there.

Jeff, the uniformed lobby security guard, on the job just nine months, is not quite a loser but knows he easily could be if he doesn’t keep this job. He wants—no needs—to be liked. He’s a joker, sometimes inappropriately. He’s a loner, he longs for a girlfriend, he’s uneasy in all-guy situations. And he wants to make something of his life but he doesn’t yet know what. Aaron Bliden brings to the role such a likeable mix of earnestness and slackerness that we can’t help but root for him.

William, Jeff’s wrapped-tight supervising captain, is all about discipline. He comes from a background that could readily have coaxed him into a life of crime, but he has stayed the course of honor and respect for the law. So strict is is his sense of duty that he berates Jeff for being lax about the requisite minutia of his job. And then we find out William is embroiled in a lie told out of loyalty: a false alibi for his brother, who has been arrested for a heinous rape-murder. Justin Weaks brings such intensity, inner power, and quicksilver timing to the complex role that he pretty much dominates each scene he’s in.

Bill, a married uniformed police officer with years of service under his belt, is up for a commendation and doesn’t want to blow it. His partner is Dawn, a young rookie three months on the force, and he has taken her under his wing. In her eyes he is everything a good man and a good cop ought to be. There is sexual attraction between them but they keep their relationship professional. And then Dawn finds out from Jeff that all the time Bill has asked her to stand guard in the lobby while he paid a visit to a resident, he was actually getting laid with a woman known to have frequent male callers. There ensues a breakdown of loyalty and an imbroglio of mistrust due to lying that ensnares Jeff and William too.

Matthew Sparacino brings to the role of Bill an impressive self-important swagger that at times seems downright dangerous. He’s a character who’s not at all a nice guy but played here like blazes. And Laura Artesi brings to the role of Dawn a truly touching tremulousness beneath her tough-cop pose. When Dawn finds out about Bill’s betrayal, and what an overbearing sexist he is, her heartbreak and fear fill the stage like an emotional break-in alarm going off.

We learn near the beginning that Jeff is smitten with Dawn but she’s not interested. There then develops a love story between them that’s as intriguing and insightful as it is tender. More than that I’ll not give away.

Laura Artesi and Aaron Bliden. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Laura Artesi and Aaron Bliden. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The production of Lobby Hero that Artistic Director Alex Levy has programmed and directed at 1st Stage is first-rate. Levy has respected the text with astute trust in its integrity as a thought-provoking mirror held up to everyday ethics and  quiet moral heroism. There are laughs here and there, but this is something quite other than a conventional comedy. Though it seems to begin in shallows, it steadily reveals itself to be deceptively and compellingly deep.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

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Lobby Hero plays through October 9, 2016  at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

This is one of those plays you’ll likely want to keep thinking and talking about. For a schedule of post-show discussions click here.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.