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Lobbyists for theatergoing 

by Herbert M. Simpson

Kenneth Lonergan's involving, small-scale play at Geva's Nextstage is called Lobby Hero. It's set in the lobby of a New York City apartment building, where three men and a woman struggle with their conflicting efforts to behave like a hero. So, heroism, or at least each character's concept of what constitutes admirable behavior, seems to be the central theme. Or is it?

            Jeff, a wisecracking security guard, tries to find order and sense in his feckless life, spent mostly in rebellion against his father, a former Navy hero who became a drunken has-been. William, his security crew "Captain," is a buttoned-up, punctilious martinet. Bill, an admired, macho police officer, is trainer and role model for his rookie partner, a petite, defensive woman named Dawn. They all think they know right from wrong, until their interaction brings complications.

            Bill is married, but visits an accommodating woman on the eighth floor --- a fact Jeff spills to Dawn while flirting with her. William congratulates himself for never deviating from truth and duty, but is tempted to do both when his brother is arrested on a murder charge, possibly unjustly. Dawn, who is just another notch on Officer Bill's much-employed nightstick, justifiably feels abused, but she needs his support in defense of a charge that she used excessive force against a man who attacked her. And Jeff is loyal to William, but tempted to tell Officer Dawn that William is covering for his brother.

            So we get conflicts. Officer Bill, grandstanding as helpful hero, tries to bury the case against William's brother, but he may compromise his reputation in the process. William, always unbending, may have betrayed his principles out of concern for his brother. Despite Jeff's goodwill toward everyone, he betrays loyalties through his sense of duty. And Dawn, who wants to do good and help victims, betrays and uses Jeff.

            My problem with all these neat conflicts is the self-delusion of the characters, which amounts to virtual hypocrisy. They all strike poses continually. Dawn is practically a poster-girl for victimization, but she manages to make use of everyone she meets, without regard for how she might harm them. Bill, who sees himself as an asset to the community, talks a good game about loyalty and sticking together, while simultaneously blackmailing his partner into submission, committing adultery multiple times, and bending the law. William sounds like a ranting drill sergeant, but his constant claims of righteousness cover his lying, his devious tactics, and his bullying of his underling. And poor, would-be good-guy Jeff can't keep his mouth shut and stop interfering in every life he encounters. Also, Jeff's tentative, romantic ending with Dawn seems forced.

            So maybe the drama is really about trying to find values while dealing with everyday weaknesses. Or, more likely, maybe all this playing around just presents some very real people in an intriguing lobby scene. What playwright Lonergan excels at is not intellectual structure, but scene-making. He writes bright, vivid dialogue that builds funny, touching acting scenes that any actor could pick up and immediately want to play. The characters come alive in the script, and Geva's vibrant production makes them dynamic on stage.

            Skip Greer directs a young, attractive cast with unflagging energy and revealing movement. Rob Koharchik's elaborate, realistic set presents an urban lobby with an elevator, security doors, and a brick building across the street. As lit by Kendall Smith, it is handsome and evocative and shows what the small Nextstage can achieve.

            Lucas Papaelias, a recent graduate of SUNY-Geneseo's theater program, dominates the big set with impressive, natural ease. His Jeff is quirky, scruffy, and ultimately very empathetic. Though Rodney Hicks does occasionally look too much like a young, handsome leading man for a character part, he manages to be amusingly stiff and pompous as William and still make us care for the man's dilemma.

            Morgan Davis is mostly just adorable in Act I, but her Dawn earns our sympathy in the second act, and develops a potent emotional charge in her final confrontation with Bill. Big, handsome Coleman Zeigen has the physical authority for Officer Bill's initial swaggering, but he also adds some subtle suggestions of vulnerability, even boyishness, in the character to modify what otherwise could be an entirely unlikable, or even oafish, stereotype.

            This lobby is worth hanging out in.

Lobby Hero,by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Skip Greer, plays on The Nextstage at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, through Sunday, April 6. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tix: $12-$25. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org.

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