Theater Review - Lobby Hero brings the graveyard shift to life

Pinch n' Ouch Theatre's latest secures its ambitious rep

"I'm not a doorman, I'm a security officer," insists Jeff, a young apartment gatekeeper in Pinch n' Ouch Theatre's Lobby Hero. Played by Andrew Puckett, Jeff doesn't exactly argue a convincing case that he's a man of action, despite his badge and uniform. He works the graveyard shift in the lobby of a New York high-rise, with few apparent responsibilities beyond standing watch and staying awake.

The title Lobby Hero provides an ironic description of Jeff's current status. Having been cashiered from the Navy and run up big debts, the twentysomething wiseacre lives with his brother and merely wants to save money to get his own apartment. It's like Jeff's trapped in a symbolic "lobby" outside his own life waiting half-heartedly for things to improve rather than seize the day.

Whether Jeff can muster the self-possession to take a heroic step provides one of the driving questions of Lobby Hero, a rich and engaging play by Kenneth Lonergan, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of You Can Count on Me. Directed by Grant McGowen, Pinch n' Ouch's production doesn't always mine the depths of the script, but it still provides a compelling character study with the trappings of an urban crime drama.

At first, Jeff simply struggles to live up to the exacting standards of his superior, William (Enoch King), the youngest "captain" at his security firm. Where Jeff sees himself as a work-in-progress getting his life back together, William sees an unmotivated slacker. But as they work out their differences, they discover a foundation for a potential friendship. William also reveals a personal dilemma that could support a play all on its own. The police suspect his brother of participating in a horrible crime. William, who happens to be African-American, considers providing his brother with an alibi to protect him from the frequently racist criminal justice system. Doing so, however, would require William to violate his strict code of personal ethics.

Additional layers of tension come from two uniformed police partners whose beat includes the apartment building. A rookie named Dawn (Portia Cue) relies on her popular veteran partner Bill (Larry Jr.), only to learn that the older man abuses his authority in increasingly ugly ways. The police department's old-boy network exacerbates Dawn's problems with Bill, but Jeff could provide a means to help her. For all of Lobby Hero's characters, self-interest conflicts with the greater good (which proves to be a fluid concept), and Jeff struggles between his overt attraction to Dawn and his loyalties to somebody else.

As Jeff, Puckett's demeanor suggests a juvenile delinquent from a 1950s movie unready to take on grown-up responsibility. Jeff's reflexive sense of humor serves as a defining trait, yet Puckett doesn't always exaggerate the punch lines, so the actor makes an ambiguous first impression. He gradually signals Jeff's desperation, eagerness to please, and moments of sheer eccentricity, until Jeff emerges as a full-fledged person, rife with quirks and contradictions.

Larry Jr. nails his character's comedic aspects, but tends to deliver his lines so rapidly, and in such a narrow range, that Bill's sense of entitlement and menacing qualities don't really come across. The role should have more intimidating charisma than it does. King, however, gives a superb, career-best performance as a slow-burning "civilian" with more self-discipline and integrity than the officers charged with keeping the peace.

Jeff bears more than a passing resemblance to the protagonist of Pinch n' Ouch's inaugural play, reasons to be pretty, which depicted another underemployed young man at a personal crossroads. Compared to Lobby Hero, reasons to be pretty was a sharper production of a lesser script. Lobby Hero nevertheless secures Pinch n' Ouch's reputation as a company with considerably more ambition and drive than the heroes of its zeitgeist-defining plays.

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