Talk about getting into a play: Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero, this season's final Studio offering at the St. Louis Rep, is set mostly in the lobby of a highrise apartment building in Manhattan. In order to reach their seats in the Emerson Studio Theater, viewers must enter through the apartment building's handsome front door and pass across the lobby -- i.e., the stage.
Ostensibly, the plot centers on Jeff, a loquacious loser who works the graveyard shift as a security guard. Jeff is easygoing (except when people mistake him for a doorman); he likes to lay on the charm. The problem is, he talks too much -- both for his own good and for the play's. As Jeff gabs on and on with his harried supervisor, the opening scene plods through seemingly interminable exposition. Nor is all this blather helped by arbitrary blocking that first has Jeff seated, then has him standing, then crossing left, then moving right, all to little purpose.
Then something magical happens. The action briefly moves to a city street. A veteran police officer and his rookie partner (who in this nocturnal play is a little too obviously named Dawn) enter into a playing space so tight that they can barely move. So there's no blocking. They simply stand there and converse. They're real; nobody's "acting." The audience is almost an eavesdropper. The play becomes instantly gripping, and remains so till the end of Act One. When the lights rise on Act Two, here we go again: Jeff is indulging in too much conversation; the script begins to feel padded. Yet as soon as the two police officers enter, the plot again kicks in and never lets go.
Although brutality lurks just outside this elegant refuge, Lobby Hero never resorts to obvious violence. There are no gunshots, just crackling dialogue. By evening's end it's clear that Lobby Hero is not really about Jeff; he just has the most lines. Rather, this tale of loneliness and fidelity is about all four of these disenfranchised characters. Each is being squeezed in a vise of his or her own making. Their dilemmas intertwine in a superbly structured conundrum with nearly as many twists as a Hitchcock thriller.
As Jeff, Jim Butz becomes ever more persuasive as the evening proceeds. Ultimately he wins his battle of words, but it's a case of charm over verbiage. Rashaad Ernesto Green portrays Jeff's volatile boss. Green appeared last year in one of the Rep's mainstage productions, but apparently no one has told him that in this intimate studio space the audience is a lot closer. When he manages to control his performance, he's effective; when he hollers, he merely calls attention to himself. As the police officer, Lou Sumrall takes a potentially one-note role and transforms him into a riveting viper. Terrific work.
But Lobby Hero's real hero is the heroine. As wonderfully costumed by Elizabeth Eisloeffel, Tarah Flanagan's rookie cop is smothering before our very eyes. She's buried in blue; only her head and tiny hands peer out from beneath her unwieldy uniform. But head and hands are all that Flanagan needs to deliver a quirky, clenched performance that reveals complexities the simple-minded Dawn doesn't even know she has. Under Tom Martin's direction, Flanagan creates a completely realized character, both pathetic and valiant.
The lobby, designed by Christopher Pickart, is a stylish sanctuary protected -- or so one would think -- by closed- circuit TV screens and elliptical mirrors. Typical of Pickart's sets, everything on stage enhances the story, from the quaint chandelier right down to the shiny black-and-white squares of the linoleum floor that become a kind of high-stakes chessboard. But in the metaphorical chess game that plays out in Lobby Hero, there are no kings or queens, merely pawns.