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.

Lobby Hero at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo by Justin Been

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.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Stray Dog Theatre’s “Guys and Dolls” has gusto from the guys and gumption from
the dolls, giving it an extra shot of pizzazz.

This snazzy ensemble puts oomph in every song and every
scene, and the young cast provides a freshness to the material that makes this
delightful confection very charming.

One of Broadway’s most beloved golden-age classics, the 1950
Frank Loesser musical comedy is such a fixture in school and community theater
that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen it, been on a crew
or acted in it.

Nearly everyone who has a connection to the play looks back
on it fondly, as you just can’t find fault with those peppy numbers, no matter
how times have changed. The colorful characters are based on Damon Runyon’s
short stories, included in Jo Swerling’s book and polished by the renowned late
comedy writer Abe Burrows.

“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – Photo by John LambGary F. Bell’s tight direction, along with Jennifer
Buchheit’s effervescent musical direction and Mike Hodges’ dynamic choreography,
has created a high-spirited production that pops with personality.

The show is not merely a blast from the past but a peppery,
spry and amusing tale of high rollers and holy rollers finding common ground in
the hustle and bustle of Times Square.

This production is distinguished by Sara Rae Womack’s bubbly Adelaide, Kevin O’Brien’s conflicted and goofy Nathan Detroit and Mike Wells’ happy-go-lucky Nicely-Nicely Johnson, whose warm tenor propels “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” to be the showstopper it should be.

Womack, employing a Betty Boop voice, delivers one of her
strongest performances to date as the optimistic entertainer Miss Adelaide, who
has been engaged to Nathan for 14 years. It’s complicated. Womack hits the
sweet spot giving long-suffering Adelaide sass but a genuine sincerity too. She
and the sunny O’Brien are terrific together, especially in “Sue Me.” And she is
a born showgirl leading the Hot Box Girls in “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take
Back Your Mink.”

The Hot Box Girls. Photo by John LambWomack, O’Brien and Wells have energy to spare, and their
enthusiasm playing these roles is contagious, as are the wise-guys and Hot Box Girls
who all appear to be having fun.

The animated players Cory Frank as Benny Southstreet, Stephen Henley as Harry the Horse, Yianni Perahoritis as Angie the Ox, Bryce Miller as Rusty Charlie and Jordan Wolk as Liver Lips Louie shake the dust from dodgier versions and deliver that unique slang-antiquated dialogue splendidly. Then, there is comical Zachary Stefaniak just killing it as the imposing hustler Big Jule. He makes the most of his crap-game moments and doesn’t have to say much to elicit laughs.

The endearing guys have us at “Fugue for Tinhorns” and then
it’s crisply-staged jaunty song and dance, and joyful interactions after that –
especially a robust “The Oldest Established” and the title song, “Luck Be a
Lady.”

“Fugue for Tinhorns” Photo by John LambOn the other hand, Jayde Mitchell has a beautiful, well-trained
voice and croons his numbers with skill as cool Sky Masterson – especially “I’ll
Know” and “My Time of Day,” but doesn’t exhibit enough swagger as the debonair mobster.
 

Perky Angela Bubash, who smiles broadly on stage in every Stray
Dog Theatre musical she’s been in, appears to be playing against type as the
uptight Sarah Brown, a prim and proper spiritually-guided woman who questions
her ability to convert sinners to saints and then gets mixed up falling in love
with Sky. It’s a tough character to warm up to anyway – stiff and unyielding
until she drinks rum in Havana and softens to the charismatic bad boy, but Bubash’s
vocal range doesn’t always suit the demanding role, as displayed in “I’ve Never
Been in Love Before.”
It doesn’t help the romantic storyline that Bubash and Mitchell have zilch
chemistry on stage. She fares better with Womack in “Marry the Man Today.” And
they blend well with their groups. The Save-a-Soul Mission force is led gracefully
by Howard S. Bell as kind and warm-hearted Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s
grandfather, whose added Irish accent is a plus. His superb rendition of “More
I Cannot Wish You” is touching and one of the highlights.

Jennifer Brown is a confident General Cartwright while Kaitlin Gant as Martha and Alyssa Durbin as Agatha are earnest Mission ‘dolls.’ However, Brown’s blocking in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” obscures others from view.

Elizabeth Semko, Alyssa Wolf, Molly Marie Meyer and Kayla
Dressman are in sync and sparkle as the fizzy Hot Box Girls. Chris Moore is the
agitated Lt. Brannigan.

“Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” showstopper. Photo by John LambThe entire ensemble hits it out of the park with “Sit Down,
You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” so that “The Happy Ending” seems just a perfunctory wrap-up,
but the musical is a jolly good time.

The large band of 11 talented musicians executed the grand
score in style and kept a lively tempo throughout, with fine work by music
director Jennifer Buchheit on piano; Joe Akers and Ron Foster on trumpet; Lea
Gerdes, Joseph Hendricks and Ian Hayden on reeds; Mallory Golden on violin, P.
Tom Hanson on trombone, Michaela Kuba on cello, M. Joshua Ryan on bass and Joe
Winters on percussion.

While it’s a space crunch because of logistics, Josh Smith’s scenic design made the cityscape tall in re-imagining Times Square on that small stage while lighting designer Tyler Duenow focused on bright lights for the city that never sleeps. Costume designer Lauren Smith captured the era well. Audio Engineer Jane Wilson’s sound was smooth.

This upbeat musical stands the test of time, and SDT has made it a refreshing summer punch. Sit back, let the world go by, and enjoy!

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Guys and Dolls” Aug. 8 – 24, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis 63104. Special matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18 and added evening performance on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. Many shows are sold out or near sell-out, so visit the website at www.straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

Full disclosure: the reviewer has directed two community theater productions of “Guys and Dolls,” in 1992 and 2011.

Photo by John Lamb