Kenneth Lonergan's 2001 play tackles themes that feel completely current.

A couple of centuries ago, novelists like Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and Honore de Balzac created fictional communities that captured the intertwined bustle of modern life, comic tapestries of earnest but flawed characters trying to make their way in a newly urban, elbow-to-elbow world.

            Accuse me of hyperbole, but I couldn’t help think of the great 19th-century novelists as I watched the last fifteen minutes of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Lobby Hero. As a playwright, screenwriter and film director, Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t have the luxury to craft his characters and situations with hundreds of pages of description and dialog. But he does take his time, and the emotions that explode in a dramatic grand finale show that, for a great dramatist, patience is a virtue.

Photo by Paul Ruffalo

Photo by Paul Ruffalo

            The hero in Lonergan’s lobby is Jeff (Chris Klopatek), a lovable screw-up who is one of the security guards in a “middle-income high-rise apartment building in Manhattan” (that description is one of the only hints that the play was written 15 years ago). Klopatek’s behind-the-desk slouch speaks to Jeff’s buffeted past. Just as Jeff’s awkward wisecracks suggest a man who wants to tenaciously keep on the sunny side, even as storms gather, it soon becomes clear that one of those clouds is the disapproval of his father, a Navy hero who inspired Jeff to enlist, only to be discharged for smoking pot on duty. He’s also paying off a gambling debt and living rent-free with his brother’s family, but after nine months holding a steady job, things are looking up.

            The secret to Jeff’s recent success might well be William, his boss (Di’Monte Henning), who sees dedication and discipline as the key to his own advancement, and likes to preach that gospel to his charges. (He likes to recommend reading The Six Habits of Self-Motivated People, but Jeff admits he “couldn’t get past the first two habits.”) Watch Henning project his confidence in the first scene, pacing the room in a crisp blue blazer as if he’s giving a Ted Talk to an audience of one. And watch those confident, studied gestures disappear as he learns more about his troubled brother, who may have committed a brutal crime.

            Lobby Hero revolves around that offstage event, but first Lonergan throws two more characters into the mix. The veteran cop Bill (Andrew Edwin Voss) and his rookie partner Dawn (Sara Zientek). Their new partnership is going well when we first meet them—a little too well, in fact. But doesn’t take long to discover that Bill is a bit of a player, both in the game of love and in precinct politics. Jeff has seen Dawn walking the beat, and has a bit of a crush on her, and Bill finds out about William’s brother, and offers to lend a helping hand.

            As he does in all his films and plays, Lonergan lets the action evolve slowly, flavoring the events with smart dialogue that gradually reveals the knotty and very human struggles within each character. It’s no surprise that Lobby Hero is one of director C. Michael Wright’s favorite plays–every scene shows his skill in shaping dialogue to reveal the things going on beneath the surface.

            Fifteen years have passed since Lobby Hero’s premiere, but it deals with ideas that are hardly out of date: sexism, police codes of conduct, the struggle to find meaningful work with a livable wage. But the play’s most forward-looking theme is something that runs through all of Lonergan’s work. People aren’t simple machines that react in simple ways. Even as 140-character bursts of snark and invective are fast becoming the dominant mode of public (and private) discourse, Lonergan reminds us of the pleasure and value of seeing people whole. More than ever, it’s the right thing to do.