Chicks With Sticks

Photo by Cris Gross/SCRDepending on whether you're a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person, Kenneth Lonergan represents one of two things. He's either living proof that it's possible to make it as an artist on your own terms, or he's a living reminder that while there are a few souls who do indeed make it, most of us are consigned to a dreary existence of shattered dreams and failed hopes. And God, how we hate those sons of bitches.

Actually, there's very little to hate about Lonergan. He's a talented writer whose twin careers—theater guy and Hollywood guy—are roaring along nicely. And on the phone, he's unassuming and modest—someone who realizes the newborn baby crying in the background of his Manhattan apartment is a lot more important and wonderful than fame and success.

Lonergan's latest play is Lobby Hero, a gritty and unsentimental look at police corruption, big ideals and small people in New York City, and it opens this weekend at South Coast Repertory.

It's the latest plume in a creative hat already plumed to the limit. In the early '90s, Lonergan wrote a script called Analyze This. While he doesn't claim any credit for the film version—by the time it hit the silver screen, at least 10 different writers had tinkered with it—the script gave Lonergan a name in the industry. And he's a playwright of no small repute. His association with the Naked Angels Theatre Co. as well as plays like Waverly Gallery and This Is Our Youthprompted a little rag named Time magazine to rate him "among our most gifted, unflinching and unpretentious new playwrights."

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But what has he done for us lately? Well, after receiving a fat-ass paycheck for writing the script for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle(which bombed big-time at the box office), he swallowed hard and focused his energies on writing and directing his own independent film: You Can Count on Me, a smash hit at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. So the guy's dabbled in all kinds of success—enough that it's starting to get a little confusing, even.

Before his film-directing debut, Lonergan was convinced that while he might make a lot of money in the film industry, theater is where he belongs. Now he's not so sure. "For the longest time, I viewed screenwriting as a way to make a living that was fun to do," he said. "I never thought of it as a potentially artistically satisfying endeavor. Being a screenwriter is to be a hired hand. To be a playwright is to be the controlling artistic force behind a production—or at least the final authority. So if it wasn't a question of money, there is no doubt I'd choose writing for the theater over writing movies. But now, if you were to ask me to choose between being a playwright and being a writer/director in films . . ." So don't be surprised at Lobby Hero's best-of-both-worlds dynamism—this latest play is something of a venue for Lonergan to showcase both his big-screen and small-stage technique.

Superficially, it seems like good TV cop opera: a young security guard in a Manhattan high-rise finds himself trapped in an intense power triangle involving his African-American superior (whose brother is the chief suspect in the murder of a white woman) and two cops—a macho male veteran and an idealistic female rookie. But the play doesn't read like it was made for prime time. Instead, there's an honest simplicity to Lonergan's characters that comes from his keen sense of dialogue and his years in theater.

Lonergan isn't Picasso when it comes to prose. He doesn't earn praise for his poetics or his complicated plots or his use of spectacle. But he writes like people speak, and the result is language and characters that feel real. Fittingly, Lobby Hero (developed at SCR in a NewSCRipts reading six years ago) turns in part on reality-inspired events: the introduction of female officers to a dude-swollen police force. "Apart from any prurient sexual interest about girls and uniforms, I've always been interested in the [personal dynamic] of women as street officers," Lonergan said. "I'm young enough to remember the first wave of street officers that were women, and it was a big difference. A world that once was only male street officers was transitioning, and I was taken with the idea of someone who is an authority figure herself but who is still dealing with old-fashioned male-female issues."

On a larger level, however, Lobby Hero isn't about police sexism or institutionalized racism as much as it's about questions of honor and idealism. Every character in the play, with the exception of Bill the veteran, does and says things under pressure that they would never have thought themselves capable of. Jeff (the security guard) wants to help people but screws up three lives in the process. Dawn (the female cop) just wants to make it on the force, but that desire ignites a conflict that could ruin two careers. And William (Jeff's boss) has to choose between lying to save his brother or telling the truth and perhaps killing him. In a cruel piece of irony, the character that loses the least is the biggest prick onstage.

"For me, it's all about people's sense about themselves and what they realize they're doing when they get into extreme situations," Lonergan said. "Every character besides Bill finds themselves doing things they wouldn't otherwise be doing and not meeting the situation the way they'd think they'd like to. Bill, who I think is a good cop, is the only one who acts without questioning himself, and in a way, he's much more effective—if amoral." Ultimately, Lonergan said, the play is about Jeff's realization that after years of wanting "to do something," it's a lot easier dreaming about being a hero than actually being one.

It's a funny message to get from an author who has been doing more something—in two different disciplines—than most of the rest of us ever will. But then again, maybe Kenneth Lonergan knows something we don't. And that would explain a lot, wouldn't it?

Lobby Hero at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Opens Fri. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through March 24. $27-$52; pay-what-you-will performance ($5 suggested), Sat. matinee.

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