By Lynn Venhaus
A triumph in the ‘new normal’ was a sight for weary eyes when Stray Dog Theatre boldly went where no one else has in regional professional theater to produce an intimate, absorbing “Lobby Hero” by Kenneth Lonergan.
With live theater being one of the harshest casualties of the pandemic, watching any kind of online production has been such a welcome respite from the world’s troubles. I have enjoyed all the creative attempts to produce art, from clever Zoom plays to a mash-up of archival footage and musical acts, to radio plays and staged readings. I admire the efforts that artists are willing to take, to make art accessible through digital media. As someone who is leery of crowds during the public health crisis, being able to stay connected to people I admire for their willingness to take risks and see what happens has been a great joy. After all, theater fans cannot live on “Hamilton” replays alone on Disney Plus.
So, after shutting their doors for the remainder of the 2020 season in May, Stray Dog Theatre came up with an unconventional plan to take the four actors already cast in the drama, put them into innovative pods for their safety, space them apart at the Tower Grove Abbey, record it and make a video link available through a service. It sounded exciting because we could see it after all – and without crowd restrictions or safety worries.
The play had been scheduled for June and was one of my most anticipated shows of the season (big Lonergan fan). For the new venture, free reservations could be made to see it July 27 – 31 and people were given 72 hours in which to view it, but the cut-off was 11:59 p.m. on the last night. This audio-visual recording was made possible through arrangements with Dramatists Play Service and the playwright, and donations could be accepted. Everything was seamless – reservation confirmed, link emailed, quick connection, and then, magic happened.
The play takes place in the lobby of a Manhattan apartment building. Four people’s lives intersect through their work – two security guards and two police officers on the night shift, and then are drawn into a murder investigation. These three men and one woman have distinct personalities that emerge, ordinary people who must confront moral dilemmas and ethical behavior through conflicts with each other. Lonergan is so good at revealing layers and the late-night conversations have a genuine intimacy.
What a finely tuned quartet the performers were: Jeremy Goldmeier as Jeff, a hapless regular joe, just trying to find his way in the world but usually unlucky in life; Abraham Shaw as William, Jeff’s strict supervisor, frustrated by the failure that surrounds him – his knucklehead employee and his troublemaker brother (unseen), when all he is trying to do is succeed; Stephen Peirick as Bill, an obnoxious married police officer who abuses his power and thinks he deserves respect as a big shot; and Eileen Engel as Dawn, a rookie officer enamored with Bill but also trying to prove that she fits in to a macho man’s world.
They each have various degrees of ambition, and that is transparent. Their feelings will become apparent as they talk to each other, from initially shooting the breeze to thornier statements as details of a murder unfold. A nurse with three young children has been brutally raped and killed by a group of thugs. William’s brother is a suspect. How far will he go to protect him? Talkative and lonely, Jeff has taken a shine to Dawn, but she is enamored with Bill, until evidence of sexual misconduct is revealed. Dawn’s only been on the force for three months and has a lot to learn.
It was if I was sitting in a pew, the four well-rehearsed actors seamless in conveying multi-dimensional characters. The smart, sharp ensemble delivered dialogue-dense exchanges that went from casual to probing, puzzling to skeptical, pleasant to peeved. Loyalties swiftly shifted. Director and Artistic Director Gary F. Bell escalated the growing tensions well and shrewdly moved the players around. The fade technique worked well as exits.
With its relevance to today’s social issues, you would not realize it was a generation removed, written in 2000. And Goldmeier – in what might be his best work – makes us see every tic of his turmoil. He wants to do the right thing – but is he capable? He is intimidated by blustery Bill, who likes to throw his weight around, and wants desperately to please his boss. When William confides in Jeff, they seem to become friends.
The actors worked so well together, building the emotional energy Bell was seeking. Peirick plays well against type, being an entitled jerk, while Engel holds her own with the guys, talking tough with a torrent of profanity. She’s tiny but mighty in navigating her way in an obvious man’s world.
And, like so many key turning points, it comes down to secrets and lies. In 1808, Sir Walter Scott wrote “oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” and it still holds true today. Stories unravel, truths unfold, betrayals sever relationships and life gets rather messy for each of the four. They learn the hard way that there are consequences to actions.
Justin Been has proven he is quite a visionary and his remarkable technical skills were on display again. As associate artistic director and production manager, he added imaginative touches, through music and modern graphics. He evoked the location with black-and-white scenes of New York City. He and Bell had come up with the pod idea, executed by set designer Josh Smith.
“Lobby Hero” was produced off-Broadway in 2001, after Lonergan had been Oscar-nominated for the screenplay to “You Can Count on Me.” Lonergan would finally make it to Broadway in 2014 with “This Is Our Youth,” a Steppenwolf revival of his 1996 play starring Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. I was fortunate to see it at the Cort Theatre then, a memorable experience. Lonergan has a knack for creating vivid roles through conversations, and the gifted actors didn’t miss a beat in crafting familiar, relatable characters. After winning the Oscar for his “Manchester by the Sea” original screenplay in 2016, Lonergan oversaw a remount of “Lobby Hero” in March 2018 at the newly renovated Hayes Theatre on Broadway, starring Michael Cera as awkward Jeff and Brian Tyree Henry as stern William (both Tony Award nominees), Chris Evans (yes, Captain America) as the compromised police officer Bill and Bel Powley as feisty Dawn.
Stray Dog hopes to be back with their season in February 2021, if all is safe to do so. They may even return virtually with another innovative project. “Lobby Hero” was a perfect choice to stage the inventive way they did.
If you need information, contact them directly by email at [email protected] or by phone at (314) 865-1995.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.