Thursday, July 30, 2020

"Every Day a Little Death": Stray Dog's "Lobby Hero" movingly tells of small tragedies

The essence of tragedy is the fatal flaw in the protagonist’s noble character. It’s a crack in the foundation that eventually causes the entire edifice of their life to come crashing to the ground, usually with fatal consequences for all involved.

Gary F. Bell and the cast of Lobby Hero
This can be thrilling in the theatre, I think, at least partly because it so rarely happens in real life. Most people have very few great flaws, but very many minor failings. Little mistakes, tiny hurts, and small betrayals can inflict pain, but there’s no great, heaven-storming crash. “Every Day a Little Death,” as the song from A Little Night Music goes.

The four characters in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 drama Lobby Hero, live streaming in a compelling production by Stray Dog Theatre through Friday July 31st, are ordinary working stiffs rather than nobility, and their story isn’t so much tragic as it is ironic. All four do what they think is the right thing, but it inevitably turns out wrong. No empires fall, but feelings are hurt, careers damaged, and friendships crippled. Life goes on, but everyone dies a little.

Jeremy Goldmeier
Set in the lobby of a middle-income apartment building in New York City in the wee hours of several consecutive mornings, the story of Lobby Hero revolves around the hapless Jeff (Jeremy Goldmeier), whose aimless life has left him working the graveyard shift as the building security guard. His stern boss William (Abraham Shaw) tells him to shape up and pushes self-help books on him which, of course, Jeff never reads. Jeff yearns to impress rookie cop Dawn (Eileen Engel), but she’s smitten with her overbearing senior partner Bill (Stephen Peirick)—until she discovers that the purpose of his late-night visits to the building is a regular hookup with a woman on the 22nd floor.

William, meanwhile, has problems of his own. His brother has been implicated in the particularly heinous rape and murder of a nurse who had the misfortune to witness a gang of teenagers stealing drugs from a hospital. William’s brother claims he’s innocent, but he hasn’t got an alibi and asks William to cover for him by claiming they were at the movies together. For a man of William’s moral principles, it’s a serious conflict. He’s not completely convinced by his brother’s protestations of innocence, but he also knows the cops will assume a young black man with a troubled past and no alibi is guilty regardless of the truth.

Mr. Lonergan has drawn all four characters in such believable depth and detail that their trials are immediately moving. The more I think about the play, the more powerful it grows—a sure sign of great writing.

Director Gary F. Bell has assembled a very strong cast for his production. Mr. Peirick is completely convincing as the swaggering bully Bill—the sort of role he rarely gets to play, in my experience. Mr. Shaw shows the slow crumbling of William’s moral foundation in painful detail.

Ms. Engel all too clearly details the painful choices demanded of a woman taking on a man’s world in the pre-#metoo era and the personal cost of making them. And Mr. Goldmeier’s Jeff is a sad and touching combination of decency and ineptitude. The ultimate schlemiel, he means well but does a good thing badly, with unfortunate results for everyone.

The cast of Lobby Hero
Mr. Bell has given Lobby Hero a semi-staged production recorded live on the Stray Dog stage. All the characters are in costume and make limited use of props, but each one is enclosed in an acoustically dampened plexiglass booth to insure maximum protection from the coronavirus pandemic. They communicate via microphones and headsets, creating a kind of hybrid of stage production and radio play. Video edits allow actors to “fade to black” when they exit, but otherwise this has the immediacy of a real-time performance.

That said, the lack of blocking and a physical set tends to make the play a bit static at times and the actors can’t do much in the way of movement inside their individual booths. I couldn’t help wondering whether this might have worked better as an actual radio play, with liberal use of sound effects to make up for the lack of set and some props. It is, in any case, a creative approach to doing theatre during the plague years.

Lobby Hero is available for on-demand streaming through Friday the 31st, but you must reserve a ticket in advance online.

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