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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Palm Beach Dramaworks season opens with Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Lobby Hero’

The "Theater That Makes You Think" opens its 2023-2024 season with a character-driven drama that makes attendees reflect on why human emotions and desires often undermine people's good intentions.

Palm Beach Dramaworks [PBD] opened its new season with Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero. The play premiered off-Broadway in 2001 and then had a successful revival engagement on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre in 2018, which resulted in a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Like most of Lonergan’s work, Lobby Hero is a drama that shows good intentions can often be undermined by human emotions and desires.

It’s an interesting study of character,” said J. Barry Lewis, who directs the production and has had a 40-year run at the PBD stage. “The playwright is known for writing really interesting people, and that’s where Lobby Hero really shines.”

The story follows Jeff (Britt Michael Gordon), a twenty-something night watchman guard at a nameless, middle-income, high-rise Manhattan apartment building in the middle of the night.

Jeff’s self-help-peddling African-American “captain” and mentor, William (Levon Jacobs), appears on the scene while doing his nightly rounds. Jeff and William confide in each other. William tells Jeff that his younger brother was arrested for a horrible crime. But that’s not all. His brother wants to use him as a “free-get-out-of-jail-card” alibi. Suddenly, Jeff gets sucked into the coverup and must decide whether to lie or tell the truth to the two cops who enter his building on this fateful night.

With a rawness and flow that completely re-centers this morality play, the following two characters are introduced: Bill (Tim Altmeyer), a pompous and overbearing cop, and Dawn, his mouthy but pretty rookie female partner, played by Elizabeth Yancey, who is making her PBD debut.

The play, set in the year 2000, can be classified as a mix of three distinct categories: drama, comedy, and romance. But at its core, it’s a play of ideals. The playwright takes you deep into them, which is what good theater writing is all about.

It’s important to note that the story predates the events of September 11. It also predates when cell phones were readily available and when policemen were out on the street, using their walkie-talkies to communicate with each other. When the play starts, it is a simple story about a young security guard and his relationship with his boss, a strict man with his own way of doing things. Things change after the two security guards confide in each other — Jeff about his failure to live up to his Navy hero father, and William about his strict moral code that saved him from a fate similar to his brother’s — a life on the streets.

The play turns sharply when the gloriously awkward Jeff interacts with the other two characters, Bill and Dawn. The young night watchman reads Bill’s character well: an arrogant cop who thinks he is above the law. On the other hand, Dawn, Bill’s wide-eyed female partner, seems like a conundrum to Jeff. A woman, like most women in his life — unreadable. Throwing caution to the wind, Jeff pursues Dawn, and she soon becomes the object of his affection.

At the heart of The Lobby Hero lies a very complex, dark story and a funny, provocative study of how difficult it is to choose right from wrong when gray lines divide the world of truth. The four New Yorkers get caught dreaming their dreams at night in a city that never sleeps. Secrets are shared and betrayed, deceit is brought to light, and liars are disclosed. And sadly, dreams are also born and shattered — all in one apartment building lobby.

The story comes to a climactic point as the four characters find themselves talking about what is the truth of the matter and what is the absolute truth in the events that took place in the ongoing murder investigation. As the audience watches on, you can’t help but side with Jeff as he deals with this question: “What is my responsibility as a human being when I know things that are important to making sure that the people are brought to justice?”

At the same time, you want to side with William, who also believes in doing the right thing. However, his brother’s life is on the line. And this raises some hot buttons in the story.

Then, there is the drama between police officers Bill and Dawn that takes on a real twist when Bill’s affair with a woman in the building is disclosed. Every night, he comes in during his shift, and without checking in with Jeff like he is supposed to, he waltzes right in and goes up to see his lady friend. When Dawn discovers the truth, her blinders come off, and she faces reality. Should she disclose him? But what would be the consequences of her actions? For him and, more importantly, for her.

Again, the playwright makes you examine questions of truth and responsibility as a citizen. Scene after scene, as the four officers get deeply entangled in the murder investigation, the action raises more questions about the central themes of honor and duty that come with wearing a uniform.

In the end, the story is resolved quite simply. But so much has changed in American society since this play premiered. So, if you study real-life criminal cases that have happened since then, the results are certainly not as simple. But J. Barry Lewis’ production, beautifully acted, staged, and designed by the late Victor A. Becker, doesn’t miss a chance to shine, and it sure gets plenty of laughs.

Lobby Hero is now playing until October 29, 2023. To buy your tickets, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org or call their box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is at 201 Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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