By Jan Sjostrom
You might be hard-pressed to identify the hero in Lobby Hero, the 2023-2024 season opener at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach. None of the show’s four characters qualifies for Superman’s cape.
What Kenneth Lonergen’s chatty play gives us are everyday people caught up in difficult situations that test their moral fortitude.
The impersonal lobby of a Manhattan high-rise, designed by the late Victor Becker, provides the play’s claustrophobic setting. That’s where Jeff, an aimless security guard, lounges through the night shift, interrupted by spot checks from his zealous boss, William.
When the show opens William’s peace of mind has been rocked by his brother’s arrest for participating in the rape and murder of a nurse during a hospital pharmacy hold-up. The brother, whose past leaves the question of his guilt open, wants William to provide him with a false alibi.
Torn between his principles and his urge to protect his brother, William, the only Black character in the play, confides in Jeff, starting a chain-reaction of choices and betrayals.
Inconveniently for William, two cops are on hand, Bill, a star veteran officer with an over-sized ego, and Dawn, his worshipful rookie partner. They add to the mix Bill’s old-boy code of honor and ruthless manipulation and Dawn’s idealism and knee-jerk vengeance when Bill’s hypocrisy is revealed.
The play gets off to a slow start. Director J. Barry Lewis submits to the playwright’s pacing as the characters dig themselves deeper into self-made holes. Eventually, Lonergan, best known for his 2016 film Manchester by the Sea that earned him an Academy Award for best original screenplay., hurls them into a train wreck that can seem too neatly choreographed.
Fixed as the play’s hub Britt Michael Gordon’s Jeff is too colorless to arouse much interest, although he does have some of the best lines. The most thoughtful character, Jeff nails inconvenient truths, sneaks in quips and asks questions such as whether we can stand up for what we believe in and still be open-minded.
By contrast, Tim Altmeyer’s Bill swaggers the stage with his hands tucked suggestively into his gun belt. His in-your-face confrontations with the other characters are truly frightening.
Elisabeth Yancey as Dawn spends too much time acting tough while staring into space, but thankfully thaws as Dawn’s hard lessons in a sexist police force shred her façade.
The most dynamic character is William. Played with coiled energy by Jovon Jacobs, he wrestles with the realities of a racist and overloaded justice system while struggling to maintain his self-respect.
Kirk Bookman’s lighting skillfully evokes the pallid nighttime world of the lobby. Roger Arnold’s sound design lets in the noise and chaos of the street outside, although it’s not always coordinated with entrances and exits. Brian O’Keefe’s costumes fix the characters in their uniformed roles.
Lobby Hero’s strength is the way it prods audience members to consider what they might do were they in the characters’ shoes. Easy answers will be hard to come by.
Lobby Hero runs through Oct. 29 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show times are at 8 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday. Run time is two hours, 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets start at $89. For tickets call (561) 514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.