At one pivotal moment during Salt Lake Acting Company’s production of Lobby Hero, a telltale audience reaction captured everything that was so maddeningly, wonderfully complex about Kenneth Lonergan’s modern-morality play. It’s a scene in which Dawn (Summer Shirey), a young rookie policewoman, taunts her domineering, sexually harassing partner Bill (Michael Todd Behrens) with information she has just discovered—information that will likely embarrass him in front of his superiors.
A “you-go-girl” whoop of support went up from many of the female attendees as Dawn stood her ground, ignoring a niggling inconvenience in Dawn’s actions: In order to use the information she received, she had to betray a confidence placed in her. To save her own skin—and to inspire those sympathetic shouts—she had to sell someone out.
Dawn’s choice is only one of many in Lobby Hero, a smart and funny exploration of the rationalizations that go into our ethical decision-making. At the center of the tale is Jeff (Cameron Jones), a perpetual ne’er-do-well working as a graveyard-shift security guard in a Manhattan apartment building. Over the course of four nights, he gets tangled up in the crises and choices of three other people.
With only three months on the job, Dawn faces an inquiry after striking a drunken brawler and realizes that she may have to “be nice” to Bill in order to receive supporting testimony. Meanwhile, Jeff’s supervisor William (Frederick Jackson) struggles with whether or not to provide a false alibi when his own trouble-prone brother is implicated in a robbery-homicide case.
Anyone familiar with Lonergan from his Oscar-nominated Sundance drama You Can Count on Me knows the guy has a talent for creating characters who are more than the sum of their dialogue. In Lobby Hero, he crafts four people who grapple with wildly varying definitions of what it means to be good and do good in the world.
David Mong directs performances that run from very good to dynamic. Jones does magnificent work as motor-mouthed slacker Jeff, for whom every moral dilemma provides an interesting hypothetical topic of discussion but whose own moral development consists primarily of not getting caught.
Behrens takes on a buzz cut and cop ’stache to perfectly capture Bill, the officer so convinced that he’s the savior of the world that he can justify every transgression he makes, while Shirey and Jackson provide the effective counterpoint of solid citizens, drifting from notions of black-and-white to a world more uncomfortably gray.
The rock-solid cast anchors the production, but what makes Lobby Hero most compelling is that it’s as much about character as it is about the characters. The title of the play casts an ironic light on Jeff’s role as passive observer to the narrative’s dramatic crises of conscience. He’s a nice enough guy who finds it easy to kibbitz from his seat behind a desk because he’s never put himself in a position to make his own hard choices. He also admires anyone who demonstrates the backbone he lacks, no matter how misguided his or her behavior may be. Lonergan weaves notions of decency, loyalty and institutional injustice into a tangle where no decision comes with a simple answer. Is strength of character indicated by sticking to your guns no matter what the variables, or by knowing when to lay them down?
As is often the case in Salt Lake Acting Company shows, the technical credits are so unobtrusive that their craft might easily be overlooked. Costume, lighting and set designs do their jobs without ever getting in the way of the performances; the soundtrack sets a tone of wry intelligence with a music mix that includes Wilco, They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies.
Nothing about Lobby Hero appears designed to dazzle but instead to create a space where its ideas stick with you after they’re done entertaining. The appeal of situational morality has never been more effectively summarized than by Dawn’s frustrated plea: “How are you supposed to know if you’re right, and everybody else is wrong?”