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Kenneth Lonergan's typically nuanced characters keep us guessing in Lobby Hero

His 2001 play Lobby Hero – about to receive a local production by new Melbourne theatre company Around the Moon Productions – is similarly low-key on the surface. It’s a four-hander set entirely in the lobby of a New York apartment building, and is mostly dialogue-driven. It’s also utterly compelling.

Lonergan attributes his low-key approach to growing up in the 1970s. “You go down a list of ‘70s movies year by year, the sheer number of not just good but great movies every single year is very embarrassing if you happen to be in one of the subsequent decades.

‘‘But it was pretty standard fare in the ‘70s to have quiet movies with real characters on not necessarily predictable arcs, not teaching little lessons and adages by the end, not learning and growing and believing in themselves as the standard through-line for each story. I think I grew up in that tradition and it’s the tradition that I lean towards most naturally.’’

Lobby Hero is dripping with Lonergan’s signature mix of whipcrack humour and deep, textured characterisation. It follows the sparring between two security guards and two cops in the lobby that the former pair guard, and ripples with the rivalry, envy, lust and fear they inspire in one other. Allegiances are formed and broken, trust is betrayed, empathy rises from unexpected quarters.

It grew from an image Lonergan had of a man and a woman who are dressed in nearly identical uniforms, but only the woman is armed. ‘‘All the different layers of status involved in that, and him being attracted to her while she’s trying to be an officer, and the division between her professional behaviour and her personal feelings. The imposition upon her is much more rigid than it is on him. On the other hand she’s the one with a gun, so her status is way higher.’’

Playwrights and actors often bang on about status – which character has the upper hand and which the lower during a particular scene. Lonergan makes all that look like baby talk. At any point in his writing a character might be aggressive, fragile, dominant and self-deprecating all at once. Throw another few people into the same scene and you have relational dynamics that swirl and eddy to a dizzying degree.

“That’s one of the things that I tend to notice so it’s one of the things I tend to write about,” he says. “The obvious example is when you’re a kid and you see one of your parents at a disadvantage in the grown-up world, and it rocks your impression of them completely, and your whole sense of the order of the world. You start to see all those layers in their lives that have nothing to do with their role as your parent.”


Take Bill, the closest Lobby Hero has to a bad guy. He’s a police officer you loathe from the moment he’s introduced, hitting on his younger partner, lying to the submissive security guards and ordering them to lie for him in return, and eventually wielding his symbolic authority with all the violence of a real baton. At the same time, he’s a great cop.

‘‘There are good police officers and bad police officers but most police officers run straight into dangerous situations that most of us would run away from,’’ Lonergan says. ‘‘That may be machismo but I’m glad somebody’s willing to do it and it’s certainly not me.’’

His works are often praised for their compassion and humanity, but for Lonergan writing complex characters is just doing his job to the best of his ability.

‘‘With most people there’s something about them that is impressive or interesting or laudable and if you leave that out it makes it easier to dismiss the character. From a purely creative point of view you want the character to be as full as possible and if you’re trying to be true to life you can only make someone dismissible by leaving out half their personality.’’

It’s vital that Bill has charisma, he says, or you’re left with a moustache-twirling villain. When Lobby Hero received a critically-adored revival on Broadway in 2017, the role went to Hollywood actor Chris Evans – better known as Marvel’s Captain America.


Except of Article written by John Bailey as seen in The Age 12.10.19

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