Dion Graham and Glenn Fitzgeraldin Lobby Hero(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Dion Graham and Glenn Fitzgerald
in Lobby Hero
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
What with You Can Count on Me recently up for Oscars, Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed the film, is a hotter commodity than ever. Very likely the success of that film prompted great audience expectation for Lonergan's latest stage work--especially among those who also admired his This Is Our Youth, which examined the younger generation rather profoundly, and his The Waverly Gallery, which concerned itself every bit as gravely with the problems of old age.

For that reason, response to and respect for the four-character Lobby Hero at Playwrights Horizons may not rise to the level it deserves. However much Lonergan admirers are let down by the talky drama, it nonetheless has commendable qualities. Lonergan, you understand, is a man bent on thinking about the complexities of ethical behavior. You Can Count on Me attests strongly to that, and he doesn't seem ready to let the subject drop. His compulsion to find new angles from which to view the theme is admirable.

In Lobby Hero--the very title practically dripping off the page with irony--he is again looking at people who are inclined to do the right thing but don't know how to go about it. Indeed, Lonergan grapples with a frightening human paradox: Often, when men and women seek desperately to improve situations, they unwittingly achieve the opposite results. It's the playwright's way of saying that, although individuals may have the impulse to perform heroic actions, they wind up as nothing more than frustrated heroes. Lobby heroes. His two-act text is a fleshed-out version of the dusty remark, "A hero ain't nothin' but a sandwich."

To make his point, Lonergan introduces Jeff, the security guard at a Manhattan high-rise; his supervising captain, William; and two cops on the beat--one of them, Bill, a hothead rising in his superiors' estimation and the other, Dawn, an uncertain probationary policewoman. To complicate their lives and thereby get his message across, Lonergan supplies the rounds-making security captain William with a brother implicated in the murder of a young woman. Enterprising cop Bill, meanwhile, keeps passing through that apartment-house lobby on his way up to see a lady his wife doesn't know about.

Jeff, who's got the graveyard shift and listlessly watches over the lobby when he isn't reading or grabbing naps, likes and respects his superior but can't decide how to react when the older man confides that he's provided a trumped-up alibi to get his brother out of trouble. Similarly, Dawn, who's got something of a crush on her partner and also needs him to confirm her actions on a dicey arrest, doesn't know what to do when she learns the truth about the long mid-tour breaks Bill is taking in apartment 22-J. On top of all this, Jeff has developed a passion for Dawn. As the four stumble through their paces, Lonergan sees to it that they become entangled to the point where they seem to be enacting one of those cartoons in which someone gets glue on his fingers and, pretty soon, everyone is stuck together with no hand free to force a way out.

The dramaturgical problems of Lobby Hero arise fairly early, when it is established that the late-night lobby-watcher as a compulsively gabby guy. It's quickly apparent that the hard-luck ex-sailor Jeff, who rents a room from his married brother because he can't afford his own place, is eventually going to open his big mouth and deliver some gluey remark. The play might actually be improved if he got to his damaging indiscretion sooner rather than later; as it is Lonergan runs the risk of having audiences shout it out for him. When Jeff, longing to impress Dawn, finally reveals what he knows, he does it by mentioning a piece of information that he shouldn't have. Well, shame on Lonergan for stooping to a "you-can't-possibly-have-known-that-unless" device once common to mysteries, but now so hoary as to be laughable.

Added shame be on Lonergan's head for the ways in which he strains credulity in his realistic drama. Yes, he sets his play at night, when it would be unusual for residents to be coming and going in large numbers. But, over the course of these fraught evenings, no one at all comes in or goes out. No one even shouts out a complaint from a ground-floor apartment when the two cops and two security guards get into screaming matches. (This may seem a small quibble, but I'll wager that I'm not the only audience member who thought about such things.) Sure, playwrights deserve to be allowed dramatic license, but that's easier said than done. What, other than a theater budget, is keeping any of the high-rise occupants from nocturnal business? The lobby that Jeff guards is so untraveled that the "All visitors must be announced" sign near the reception lectern seems like a vestige.

By the way, many of the issues Lonergan tackles that have to do with cops and justice are handled repeatedly (and well) every week on the TV shows Jeff owns up to watching. One of the problems with Lobby Hero is that it could have been played out in a couple of scenes between Sorenson and Russell on NYPD Blue, or by some of the characters in Sidney Lumet's subtle new series, 100 Centre Street.

Lonergan has many mitigating factors in his favor, though, not the least of which is his gift for writing persuasive and often very funny dialogue. He's also got Mark Brokaw's well-oiled direction going for him. (Brokaw has made a nice recovery from the demands made on him earlier this season by Wendy Wasserstein's clumsy Old Money.) Moreover, as is typical of any Playwrights Horizons production, the design elements here are impeccable. Allen Moyer has built a beauty of an unprepossessing set. The glass doors to the lobby have a row of opaque diamonds in them; there are also latticework space dividers and a settee that looks as if it was purchased from an old Huffman-Koos catalogue. Maybe even more helpful is what Noone didn't put up: a clock that audience members might watch when the stage action is moving too slowly.

Tate Donovan and Heather Burnsin Lobby Hero(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Tate Donovan and Heather Burns
in Lobby Hero
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Still, the playwright's greatest asset here is his cast. As William, Dion Graham gets all of the nuances of a man who's trying to do his job conscientiously while wrestling with off-hours problems. As Bill, Tate Donovan makes eminently convincing a character whose gruff but effective approach to his job is at odds with the sloppy way in which he conducts his personal life. Heather Burns, as Dawn, has a flat borough accent down pat--and she also has a lock on a young, not terribly bright woman pursuing a profession the drawbacks of which she's only just starting to fathom.

But the standout in the group is Glenn Fitzgerald, playing a man for whom so little has gone right. Jeff was kicked out of the Navy for being caught smoking pot when everyone else was doing the same and getting off scot-free. He's a guy who freely states he has no "forte," but who also believes that his position is beneath him. He longs to make a play for Dawn but only attempts the crudest kind of verbal stabs at it. He's nervous and unsure, the kind of person who utters inarticulate sentences like "So, but, so, but, like, what did you tell them?" Yet Jeff is naturally funny; he can't curb his penchant for jokes, no matter how ill-timed they may be. He mentions that he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. He thinks, maybe, advertising--but what he really ought to consider is stand-up comedy. (Or, in this case, slouch-around comedy.)

Fitzgerald is physically jerky in his portrayal of Jeff. His arms and fingers keep moving. When he walks, his legs cross funnily in front of him. He's got a wonderfully offbeat sense of timing and an altogether unselfish ability to steal scenes. Spouting one dizzy line put in Jeff's mouth by Lonergan, Fitzgerald was so amusing that he and Burns noticeably had to hold for laughs; this isn't uncommon in comedy, of course, but you rarely see it in drama. The thin and lithe actor is like a mix of Tom Hanks and Don Knotts. He's so deft that he manages to depict Jeff's propensity for getting others in Dutch while keeping the shlub completely likeable. In this B-minus of a play, Glenn Fitzgerald is the true hero.