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Playwright, film director and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan titled his 2001 off-Broadway hit "Lobby Hero." But not far into the show, it becomes humorously and ironically apparent that in this lobby there are no heroes, there are four people who sometimes try to do what is right and even less frequently succeed.

"Lobby Hero," with its almost total reliance on the strong direction of sensitive and skilled actors can be quite a challenge for an off-off-Broadway theater group, but fortunately, the Gallery Players have proved themselves thoroughly up to the task in their current production of the play, running through March 7.

Any problems with this incarnation of "Lobby Hero" should be placed squarely at the feet of Lonergan (who wrote and directed the 2000 film "You Can Count on Me").

"Lobby Hero," directed by Tom Herman, features Tim Peper as Jeff, the luckless and clueless night watchman for a Manhattan high-rise; Postell Pringle as William, his disciplined and upright supervisor; Steve Hamm as Bill, the arrogant, macho police officer; and Elaine O’Brien as Dawn, Bill’s rookie partner.

These two pairs of uniformed workers mirror each other in several ways; both comprise a superior and a subordinate, and both relationships are cemented by trust and the ability of the more experienced partners to mentor and protect their protegees. But the similarities end there.

William, a young black man from a poor family, who has heroically clawed his way up the ranks, is honestly and altruistically trying to help Jeff, a young white man from a relatively privileged family, who has managed to slide almost all the way to the bottom. Bill, on the other hand, regards Dawn as one more sexual conquest. (He already has a lady friend in the high-rise and a wife at home.) When Dawn balks at being his patsy and holding down the fort in the lobby during his trysts upstairs, Bill threatens to withdraw his support for her in a police brutality suit. As if that weren’t enough to prove who’s the boss, he insists that she continue as his partner in bed, too.

Jeff, in many ways, also sees Dawn as a sexual object. But this is mitigated by a genuine concern for her as a real person.

But if "Lobby Hero" is all about these sets of characters, it is also about character. And that’s what’s put to the test when William’s brother is implicated in a murder-rape, and he must decide whether or not to lie and provide his brother with the alibi that will keep him out of jail.

While he is deciding, William tells Jeff about his predicament, thus making him an accessory after the fact. Unlike the typical police procedural, "Lobby Hero" ignores the legal issues involved in the situation and concentrates solely on the moral implications.

When "Lobby Hero" premiered at Playwrights Horizons, Time Out New York called it the "best drama," "best comedy," "best character study," and "best issue play" of the year. Much of this laudatory language is certainly merited. But what the Time Out reviewer kindly omitted was what the play doesn’t have - action and resolution.

In "Lobby Hero," what the audience sees is the actors’ reactions to the events, never the events themselves. The crimes supposedly committed by William’s brother, Bill’s various adulterous relationships, and Dawn’s impulsive use of her nightstick all happen off-stage. On-stage we only see banter, jokes, indecision and prevarication. Undoubtedly Lonergan is a master at crafting compelling dialogue. But after a while, that’s not quite enough.

Even more troublesome, at the end of the play no one seems to have changed his situation or his mind.

Dawn apologizes for the trouble she has caused Jeff, but it’s not apparent that she understands, or will not repeat, the mistakes she’s made both professionally and privately.

Jeff has just put a down payment on an apartment so he can get out of his brother’s house, but it’s not clear that without the benevolence of a boss like William he will be able to keep a job so he can pay the rent.

Bill remains angry and unrepentant. And William is still what he was in the beginning - disciplined and upright.

With all that said, "Lobby Hero" is worth a trip to the Gallery Players if only to see the brilliant way Peper portrays the weak and vacillating Jeff - down to the tiniest tic, the smallest shrug, the wimpiest whisper. Pringle, Hamm and O’Brien also deliver impressive performances in less demanding roles. (Peper is never off-stage and only occasionally not the focus of the drama.)

And then, of course, there’s the amazing set design of Mark T. Simpson, who has created a lobby that so perfectly duplicates a big apartment building - from the papered walls to the tiled floors - that it’s easy to forget this is really a theater.

"Lobby Hero," like the people it portrays, is not perfect. Yet there is much in this production to recommend. And if the play doesn’t provide pat answers, at least it asks the right questions.


The Gallery Players production of "Lobby Hero" runs through March 7, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 seniors and students. The Gallery Players are located at 199 14th St., between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope. For reservations, call (718) 595-0547.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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