Lies, But Good Intentions 

Kenneth Lonergan's new play does what he does best: believable dialogue.

Imagine that there's this easygoing guy who works the graveyard shift as a security guard in a Manhattan high-rise. He means well and all, but he just can't seem to pull his shit together. We'll call him, oh, Jeff, and imagine that he gets entangled in a murder investigation and falls for a tough rookie cop who's got her own big problems. As hard as he tries, he never seems to be able to do the right thing. Either he disappoints his boss, or he loses the girl, or her borderline sociopath of a partner plows him into tomorrow. What should he do?

That's the idea behind Kenneth Lonergan's surprising and wonderful off-Broadway hit Lobby Hero, now in its Bay Area premiere at the Aurora. Lonergan's best-known work is probably the screenplay for Analyze This, where he displayed the same flawless gift for believable dialogue he does here. The four characters in Lobby Hero -- Jeff, his principled boss William, the hotheaded Dawn, and the veteran cop Bill -- are funny, complex, and completely real, down to the hesitations, the false starts, the forgotten words.

Their situation is also completely believable, a mixture of humor, frustration, and ethical dilemmas that raises more questions than it answers. Dawn shouldn't be involved with Bill the way she is, but we understand how it happened. Jeff could be making better choices, but would we, put in the same bind? William prizes his morality, yet his family -- and the reality of our shoddy justice system -- will put it to the test. Meanwhile Bill takes what he wants and damn the consequences; he'll say whatever he has to say to keep his ass out of the fire and has no problem justifying the most outrageous behavior.

The contrasts between these four are finely drawn, as is the nature of mentor/mentee relationships -- especially ones that have gone, or are going, bad. The tools the older men use to shape their charges vary from sex to self-help books, but the underlying conceit -- that they know better by virtue of their age and experience -- is the same in both men. "I regard you as a project," William tells bouncy, irreverent Jeff. Later Bill (Howard Swain) matter-of-factly explains that he's trying to shore up the self-esteem of a woman he belittles as "a little girl dressed up in a cop suit" by showing sexual interest in her.

Both of the younger people have something to prove, but they go about it differently. Jeff is a career fuck-up who doesn't understand how his actions are hampering him. Dawn, meanwhile, takes responsibility for everything, even things that aren't really hers. This is a much different role for Arwen Anderson than her last appearance at the Aurora as the rather throwaway "good" girl in The Shape of Things. Here's she's volatile and tough and scared, all at the same time; she's clumsy and brave and trying to do some small goodness in the world even as her co-workers cut her down. She's well-matched by T. Edward Webster, a CalShakes veteran long overdue for this kind of extended, intriguing role. Webster's likable Jeff has a knack for saying the wrong thing, often to the audience's rueful amusement. Anderson and Webster get the job of capturing the sense of how did things get so bad, so fast as the moral dilemmas pile up so fast it becomes hard to keep track.

It's easy to say that you'll never lie, or withhold vital information, or participate in questionable liaisons. In Lobby Hero, Lonergan shows why we might do any or all of those things, even with the best intentions, and the Aurora expresses his vision with economy, skill, and a light touch.

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