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A Less Than Heroic Effort, on All Fronts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Remember “it” girls? And “it” boys? Well, if there’s such a thing as an “it” writer these days, it could well be Kenneth Lonergan. Ever since his “This Is Our Youth” hit off-Broadway in the late ‘90s, he’s been hotter than toast from coast to coast, enjoying a free ride on the media bandwagon. And that Oscar nod for his film writing-directing debut “You Can Count on Me”? It probably got him more than his own parking spot, you can count on that.

So it’s easy to understand why South Coast Repertory must’ve thought it had a big hairy deal on its hands with the West Coast premiere of Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” which opened Friday. And well it might have, if “Lobby Hero” wasn’t a seriously flawed play. Or if those flaws weren’t exacerbated by an ill-conceived production.

That kind of thinking would explain, for example, why it didn’t insist that the playwright slash, say, 90 minutes of verbal lard from a play that begs for it. And it would explain why it put this drone-on-athon on the football field of a main stage, instead of in the chamber-sized Second Stage where it belongs. It bought the hype, but you don’t have to.

Yet even whopper-size hubris can’t explain why SCR gave Lonergan director Olivia Honegger, who does the play and its four actors no favors, delivering some of the least competent work I’ve ever seen in this theater. The whole thing would be somnolent, if it weren’t so irritating.

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Make no mistake; Lonergan, unlike Honegger, is a major player. He knows what made him chichi in the first place and doesn’t mess with the recipe. His breakthrough play, “This Is Our Youth,” was a triumph of well-timed Weltschmerz. It had the intelligentsia billing and cooing--in vintage limousine liberal fashion--over its portrait of the disaffected crack-peddling offspring of the Upper West Side, and a star-making turn by Mark Ruffalo.

A highly castable three-hander for 20-somethings, “This Is Our Youth” should’ve gotten an L.A. production quicker than you can say hot-young-stars-on-hiatus-from-TV-series. But there’s a reason why it hasn’t: It’s not that good a play. Look beneath the slice-of-seedy-life veneer, and there isn’t much more than hip cynicism, couched in the kind of dialogue you can overhear at your nearest slacker roost. Lonergan’s subsequent play, “The Waverly Gallery,” is thankfully a bit richer. It will be staged at the Pasadena Playhouse this summer.

Too bad, then, that “Lobby Hero,” resembles “This Is Our Youth” more than “The Waverly Gallery.” While the characters here are older and poorer than the Upper West Side brats of the first play, they’re clearly their existential and linguistic cousins.

Both groups wallow in anomie. They dwell in the margins of society, or at least the ones right under New Yorkers’ noses. Lonergan’s dramatic universe is an East Coast version of the terrain explored by writers from Sam Shepard to John Steppling, a low-rent land of stasis and emotional inertia.

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Writing about stuck lives is arguably one of the toughest enterprises in the theater. Think of Chekhov, or Beckett. It requires a delicate balance of contempt and compassion. But Lonergan doesn’t convince us that there’s a reason for us to care about his characters for more than five minutes.

This time out, the purgatory of the moment is the lobby of a Manhattan high-rise, where two security guards and two cops cross paths. The titular “Hero” is a trademark Lonergan type: a heedless schlemiel, both damaged and damaging. He’s an enervating jerk named Jeff, a security guard who’s been on the job only a few months, in a flat, low-stakes turn by Kevin Corrigan, who’d do well to review his stage, as opposed to film, acting techniques. As is, he’s an arc-less black hole where the central force of the play should be.

Jeff’s boss William (T.E. Russell, in a respectable if not surprising performance) is an uptight by-the-book type who’s just found out his brother has been charged with a murder he may or may not have committed.

Meanwhile, the cops arrive. There’s the macho pig Bill (the usually better Simon Billig) who nightly does the deed with the sexy divorcee upstairs, and his high-strung rookie partner Dawn (Tessa Auberjonois), whom he’s also been bedding.

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First, Jeff rats on Bill. Then it escalates to a four-way, as they all start taking turns betraying and retaliating against each other. Ultimately, Jeff rats on William, with seemingly no regard for the fact he’s sending the man’s brother down the river. Then Dawn rats on Bill, who pulled strings for William. Bill ruins Dawn’s career. And Dawn and Jeff get together in the end?

Yes, it’s as contrived and often senseless as it sounds. Somewhere in this, there’s a moral quandary. There may even be several. As is, they’re buried deep in a piece that’s interminably talky and repetitive.

There’s a better play here--not great, but better. Showing us that should’ve been Honegger’s job. It’s the director’s task to have a vision of what the play is truly about, and to focus, shape and orchestrate all the elements of the drama accordingly. Honegger not only fails to do that, but seems to have cut class on Directing 101.

Her staging is weak, but she’s not an actors’ director either. The actors aren’t speaking or listening to one another. They’re allowed to upstage themselves. Their performances are not modulated.

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In an intimate space like SCR’s second stage, we might’ve had a better chance of perceiving the tension and volatility inherent in the play. These characters are stuck in a dirty fishbowl, and we should have our noses pressed up against the glass, where we can feel them seething at one another. Where it is, “Lobby Hero” is lost in the vast unused acreage of Tony Fanning’s wry and finely observed set. (The gigantic blue and white Christmas wreath hanging behind Jeff’s desk is a masterly stroke.)

Fortunately, Fanning isn’t the only one with a sense of humor. Lonergan does get in more than a few zingers. But like everything else about this play that could be provocative, they’re diluted by the surrounding excess. We laugh easily when the jokes come, but that’s largely because it’s such a welcome relief from the overweening tedium.

*

“Lobby Hero,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Closes March 24. $27-$52. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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Kevin Corrigan...Jeff

T.E. Russell...William

Tessa Auberjonois...Dawn

Simon Billig...Bill

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By Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Olivia Honegger. Set design by Tony Fanning. Costumes by Amy Hutto. Lighting by Tammy Owens Slauson. Sound by Aram Asianian. Production stage manager: Scott Harrison.


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