Thoughts & Musings

At Least Four Shades of Grey: Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Lobby Hero’

Discussion Sunday is September 22nd

© 2013 by Eileen Warburton

KA-BOOM!!!  The ship hits a mine in the middle of the night. The water rushes in. The ship is going down. Chaos! Almost all the duty crew save themselves by jumping overboard. But twenty-three men are trapped below the deck, screaming for their lives. Complete terror and pandemonium. Just one sailor on duty stays, finds a blowtorch and goes below, heaves himself into the water and the pitch darkness. With only seconds to spare, he cuts through the bulkhead and gets every trapped man out to safety.

The man is a hero. It’s unambiguously clear. He had immense courage. He showed self-sacrifice. He made a difference.

This is Jeff’s father, of course, and Jeff has grown up in the shadow of his dad’s courage. He is resentful, scornful of the aging men and their families who annually come to thank their rescuer. But he is also aware, listening to this “fuckin’ story. . ..several times a year as you can probably imagine, over and over and over again,” that these lugubrious old guys and their children and grandchildren owe their very existence to Jeff’s “asshole” father and his act of heroism.

Jeff is jealous. He, too, wants to make a difference. He wants to feel proud of his actions and do the right thing and have other people respect him.

Just look at these four young characters on the stage. All in uniform. Security. Police. They have ideals and ambitions. Each character in his or her own way tries to bring order to their messy lives and to a messy world. They all want to do the right thing. They all have the courage to act and even to be self-sacrificing. They just have no clarity. Like Jeff, they are all metaphorically stuck on the ground floor of their lives in a non-descript environment. They all want to be more, to do more. They live in a society that offers them no clear path, rather, throws up obstacles to their best selves. So they stumble comically along, trying to figure it out, trying to self-define themselves into being worthy, self-respecting individuals.

William has been working for security companies since he was a kid. He works hard, takes the worst shifts and turns them into opportunity, nurtures ambitions for himself, and even stretches himself to mentor a younger guy in whom he sees “potential.” He’s a little self-righteous. He’s a black man who’s worked on the principle that hard work, total truthfulness, and keeping your nose clean will create a future for you. That dream again. His success is completely predicated on a grudging world viewing him as a straight arrow guy. Fate deals him the worst of dilemmas: his brother wants him to supply him with an alibi for a terrible crime. If William refuses and lets him stand trial, the brother’s chances of justice are worse than nil.

Jeff, eager as a puppy for attention and love, is a kind of all-over-the-place goofball, kicked out of the Navy for smoking pot, a motor-mouth, living on his brother Marty, deeply in debt, but craving independence, love, self-esteem. He’s got a tiny bit of traction—a sort-of job, a little money, a friend in his supervisor, the slimmest attention from the cute lady cop. And Fate deals him his worst dilemma—tell the police what he knows about the crime and he betrays his friend. Lie about it, and there’s no justice and his self-respect is gone.

Dawn, the rooky cop, founders around in that classic quandary of women trying to make good in a man’s profession. She’s drawn to police work because she genuinely wants to make a difference. She’s little, fierce, and easily threatened and these make her over-compensate in any confrontation—injuring a perp, snapping at Jeff, exploding in anger at Bill. Her status as a rooky and a female means she’s dependent on the goodwill of the rest of the force. And since she’s disliked, resented, and preyed upon by the all-male squad, she’s a sucker for the one cop who treats her well, mentors her, sticks up for her, and assures her that he’s her protector. What a depressing old story. Dawn’s put in the position of lying for him, covering his lapses, and ultimately being sexually coerced lest she lose her shot at professional advancement.

In his own slippery way, even Bill wants what the other characters want. He hungers for self-respect and the respect of his peers. He has distinguished himself and is immensely proud of his professional reputation. He yearns for that promotion to detective. His moral philosophy, however, is based on the formula of “you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours.”  It’s all about loyalty—looking out for other cops, looking out for his partner, looking out for a friend. With the understanding, of course, that they will all look out for Bill. This sense of entitlement encourages him to slide—a little extra-marital whatever here, a little pay-off there—until he’s pretty much a charming, self-justifying sleezeball.

Back in the Middle Ages, this kind of play was called a morality play. The central character was often named Everyman, because—yes—he stood for you and me and all of us, some ordinary person wrestling with Good and Evil. In those times, however, it was crystal clear who was the Devil and who was the Angel. In Lobby Hero, in this wonderfully rendered contemporary morality play, there’s no such clarity. This is real life as most of us experience it. Each one of the four ordinary Everyman characters could be any of us. The reality is so recognizable and the speech so totally credible. Their situation and their responses to it are simultaneously hilarious and deeply sad. Malice and idealism are all mixed up. And there’s such a sweet, awkward romance laced through it.

Kenneth Lonergan (b. 1962) was born in the Bronx, started writing in high school, studied theatre at Wesleyan, and graduated from NYU’s Playwriting Program. His first play, The Rennings Children (1982), was selected for a festival when he was still an undergraduate. He supported himself through his twenties as a speechwriter for the EPA and a writer of industrial shows for big commercial clients. His first theatrical success came with This is Our Youth (1996), followed by The Waverley Gallery (1999), both somewhat autobiographical. By the time Lobby Hero was premiering off-Broadway in 2001, Lonergan was writing screenplays for film as well, and winning awards: Analyze This (1999), You Can Count on Me (2000), and Gangs of New York (2002) which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. He’s regularly noted for his remarkable ear for dialogue and the rhythms of common speech and his raucous humor, tempered by wry compassion for his characters.

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