Watching a good play is a totally different experience from watching a bad one. With a bad one, you remain completely detached from what's happening on stage. The cold, analytical part of your brain takes over and you're soon coming up with reasons as to why the wretched thing doesn't work. With a good one, by contrast, you're immediately swept up in the drama. The experience is much more emotional and, as a result, it's difficult to say what was good about it when it's all over. That may be one reason why it's a lot easier to write a bad review than a good one.
Lobby Hero is a fantastic play but I'd be hard pushed to say why. You can tell it's good because within about five minutes any sense you have of being a member of the audience, sitting down and watching a group of actors perform on a stage, has vanished. The effect is like that of a very strong narcotic. In what amounts to an out-of-body experience, you're totally absorbed in what's going on. You've passed through the looking glass and you're on the other side.
But how is this affect achieved? I'm not exactly sure. One factor is that the characters in Lobby Hero seem 100% real. It's set in a New York apartment building in the middle of the night and the first people we're introduced to are Jeff (David Tennant), an easygoing security guard in his late twenties, and William (Gary McDonald), his hard-nosed supervisor. Jeff and William are incredibly deftly drawn--we have a strong sense of them almost immediately--but whether that's due to the ability of the playwright or the actors is hard to say. Perhaps all a good writer has to do is to provide a few precise brushstrokes and the performers will then fill in the rest.
There's no doubting that Kenneth Lonergan, the author of Lobby Hero, is a gifted writer. He's also responsible for This Is Our Youth, a similarly powerful play that's currently at the Garrick. In addition to being able to conjure up three-dimensional characters out of thin air, Lonergan is a spellbinding storyteller. Jeff and William's relationship is immediately thrown off balance by the arrival of Bill (Dominic Rowan), an overbearing police officer, and Dawn (Charlotte Randle), his rookie partner. Before long, all four characters are embroiled in a complicated plot involving homicide, sexual assault and perjury. As with all the best dramas, the story initially seems to unfold as a direct result of the choices the characters make, but by the end they're completely trapped in the labyrinthine plot. Kenneth Lonergan is particularly good, both here and in This Is Our Youth, at showing how good intentions can be undermined by unconscious desires. Few of his characters are capable of resisting their own malignant impulses.
However, don't be misled into thinking that Lobby Hero is any way heavy going. Another of Lonergan's gifts is his ability to combine drama with comedy. The characters in Lobby Hero are constantly having to make important, life-changing decisions, yet there's scarcely a moment when the audience isn't laughing. Jeff, in particular, is hilarious: almost everything that comes out of his mouth is funny. You leave the theatre at the end of the evening feeling you've been thoroughly entertained and anyone standing outside, watching people depart, would assume the audience had just sat through a really satisfying comedy.
Ultimately, I don't think Lobby Hero is quite as good as This Is Our Youth, possibly because it doesn't have such a universal subject. This Is Our Youth is about that time in everyone's life between late adolescence and adulthood when inexperience clashes with insight, whereas Lobby Hero is about the conflict between personal loyalty and civic duty. All the characters are in uniform but not all of them take the responsibilities signified by those uniforms seriously. Ironically, it's Jeff, the court jester, who ends up displaying the most admirable qualities. He's far from perfect, yet he's the lobby hero of the title.
In America, Kenneth Lonergan is regarded as one of the most promising playwrights on Broadway but he's largely unknown in Britain. Perhaps this will change when the existing cast of This Is Our Youth is replaced on April 25 by Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix, three of the brightest young stars in the Hollywood firmament. For those of you who still haven't discovered him, and can't easily get to the West End, I'd recommend the film he wrote and directed called You Can Count On Me. The title is ironic, of course--the characters are pathologically unreliable--but it's a deeply serious (as well as a deeply funny) movie. I'm not sure I could say why, but I think You Can Count On Me was the best film of last year. With a bit of luck you should be able to find it in your local video shop.