Theater review: Lobby Hero at 35below
Asheville Community Theatre’s blackbox theater, 35below, already feels like a workshop space, so Ellipsis Theatre Company’s production of Lobby Hero feels at home there. The acclaimed 2001 play by Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), which saw a starry Broadway revival last year, is a challenging exercise for both its playwright and its cast: Can they sell an audience on this winding tale of betrayed confidences set entirely in a New York apartment building lobby in the wee hours of several consecutive mornings?
The answer in this case is yes, as Ellipsis’ hard-working cast is at full throttle from start to finish. Daniel Henry is the convincing crux of the tale as Jeff, a late-20s slacker security guard who may or may not be on the cusp of getting his wreck of a life in order. Jeff can’t stop talking and coaxing others to do the same, and Henry keeps his energy level high as Jeff’s cascade of bullshit both offends and seduces. He’s also principally responsible for the show’s healthy dose of humor, needed to coax the audience through some heavier issues later on.
Jeff’s first victim is his boss, William (Eugene Jones), a security company captain who fancies himself a by-the-books striver but faces a moral dilemma over his (unseen) bad-seed brother. Jones’ performance evolves with William’s gradual breakdown, from stiffly disconnected to vulnerably human.
As veteran New York City police officer Bill, the id to William’s superego, Badi Mirheli establishes his authority within seconds of his arrival onstage, and Bill remains throughout the story’s most taut and sometimes threatening presence. Mirheli completely embodies the character’s shifting loyalties and menace with nuance that never falls into “corrupt cop” cliches.
Devyn Ray Villarreal is the play’s lone female cast member, playing rookie cop Dawn, Bill’s partner, who’s determined to rescue her nascent career from an altercation at a bar that sent one man to the hospital. Villareal is a natural in the role, easily handling the show’s most complicated emotional switchbacks.
She’s also the show’s capable director, maintaining a steady pace with wisely minimal blocking, keeping the focus on Lonergan’s rich, realistic and sometimes risque language, which flows with barely a pause.
Describing the show’s plot in more detail would spoil too much. Suffice it to say the whole play is basically a confidence game, as characters struggle to get the upper hand on one another and risk destroying their own lives in the process. It’s not entirely believable (would even these self-deluding people really open up to someone as sketchy as Jeff?) but Lonergan and the Ellipsis crew cast an effective spell and the audience goes along.
The final scene played more awkwardly than the rest of the play on opening night, and it was hard to say whether that was from sheer exhaustion or due to Lonergan’s occasionally noted stumbles with women characters. In any case, it adds a curious and not entirely unwelcome question mark to an evening of compelling theater.
As is standard in 35below, there’s no real set, just a few props, items of furniture and indicators for where doors should be imagined. Perhaps the only thing to distract from the cast’s intense work are two sad, much-shifted “lobby” chairs, which would make any tenant want to flee the premises.
Lobby Hero runs March 8-24,Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at 35below at Asheville Community Theater. For details and tickets, visit ashevilletheatre.org.