Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Kenneth Lonergan, beyond LOBBY HERO

by Matthew Reddin, MCT marketing director

When LOBBY HERO premiered Off-Broadway in 2001, New York magazine reviewer John Simon opened his critique of the play by describing playwright Kenneth Lonergan first and foremost as the man who wrote the year's best movie

It's fitting, though. Over his career, Lonergan has doled out his work sparingly, but evenly, between the screen and the stage, with each medium informing the other. In Milwaukee, the comparison will be easier than ever this fall, with MCT's production of LOBBY HERO overlapping with the limited release of Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Lonergan. 

If full Lonergan immersion's your game -- or if you just want to know a little more about the guy before you come and see the show -- here's a breakdown of the most significant works he's written, for both film and the stage.


Lonergan's big breakthrough, THIS IS OUR YOUTH is set in the early '80s, tracking 48 hours in the lives of three lost young souls who've gotten their hands on $15,000 (stolen from a tycoon daddy, of course). As the first example of Lonergan's trademark balance of the dramatic and the comedic, with a focus on issues of materialism and adolescent maturity, the show was a quick success, receiving acclaim, a second Off-Broadway staging in 1998, and a series of productions in London's West End in quick succession.

The original production featured Mark Ruffalo in one of his first-ever professional roles, launching his career and a longtime partnership with Lonergan. Its recent revival -- on Broadway for the first time, in 2014 -- featured Michael Cera in Ruffalo's role, alongside Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson.


A memory play in more ways than one, THE WAVERLY GALLERY depicts Gladys Green, an elderly woman slowly dying of Alzheimer's, seen through the eyes of her narrator grandson. Again displaying Lonergan's skill in comic drama, the play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and picked up four major awards for the performance of Eileen Heckart, the actor portraying Gladys. 

You Can Count On Me (2000)

After co-writing the film Analyze This with Harold Ramis and Peter Tolan in 1999, Lonergan's next project was as big a breakthrough in the world of film as THIS IS OUR YOUTH had been on the stage. Reuniting Lonergan with Mark Ruffalo, the film follows an estranged brother and sister (Ruffalo and Laura Linney). They reunite when he returns to the Catskills community where they grew up, but his arrival subtly throws her life into disarray, slowly forcing them into conflict.

Lonergan directed the film, as well as wrote the screenplay, and critics took note. Many placed the film on their best-of lists for 2000, specifically citing Lonergan's "bottomless dialogue" and the film's emphasis on making everyday problems as compelling as high drama. Before the awards season was over, You Can Count On Me would pick up dozens of wins and nominations, including two Oscar noms and two awards at Sundance including the Grand Jury Prize.


The '00s marked a creative drought for Lonergan (partly for reasons discussed in the next entry), but he would finally return to the stage in 2009 with THE STARRY MESSENGER, his first fully produced play since LOBBY HERO opened in 2001 and his debut as a director of his own work. A star vehicle -- pun only slightly intended -- for Matthew Broderick, MESSENGER orbits around a 40-something married man who works at the Hayden Planetarium and unexpectedly connects with a single mother.

MESSENGER didn't receive the same adulation as Lonergan's earlier works for the stage, but his ear for dialogue and unique mix of comedy and drama was once again highlighted even in mixed reviews (a fate shared by Lonergan's most recent play, HOLD ON TO ME DARLING, which opened earlier this year at Atlantic Theater Company).

Margaret (2011)

After the success of You Can Count On Me, Lonergan had a number of writing and co-writing gigs in Hollywood, including the screenplays for the sequel to Analyze This and Scorsese's Gangs of New York. But his most anticipated film was Margaret, a drama starring Anna Paquin about a teenage girl who believes she helped cause a traffic accident that killed a woman.

Filmed in 2005, Margaret was intended for release in 2007, but Lonergan and the film's studio, Fox Searchlight Pictures, disagreed on the film's runtime. Fox insisted on a tight 150 minutes or less, while Lonergan's own edit was closer to three hours. The legal battle ate up years, and ultimately concluded with two versions of the film being released -- a 150-minute edit, which hit theaters in limited release in 2011 and was commercially unsuccessful, and an extended cut released on DVD in 2012 completed by Lonergan. Despite all the drama, the final release of the film received raves from many critics, and Lonergan himself says he's happy with the final cut.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

No such disputes marred the development of Lonergan's latest film, his third as a writer/director. Manchester by the Sea, set to be released in select theaters on Nov. 18 before a wider release in December, tells the story of a self-isolated man (Casey Affleck) who must unexpectedly return to his hometown to care for his nephew when his brother dies, and in the process revisits his greatest personal tragedy.

Originally, Lonergan was only booked to write the script -- the original idea came from producer Matt Damon, who had planned to direct himself and recruited Lonergan for the screenplay. But scheduling conflicts shifted Lonergan into the director's chair as well, and he would shape the film with his own vision.

Buoyed by strong advance reviews, early acclaim (a Hollywood Screenwriter Award for Lonergan and five Gotham Award nominations) and lots of Oscar buzz, Manchester looks poised to make this Lonergan's year. All the more reason to catch MCT's LOBBY HERO now -- before all the hype kicks in.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Heroes in Search of a Code

by Deanie Vallone

Think of the word “hero” and what is conjured? Marvel superheroes? Historical movers and shakers? Fanciful characters from literary epics? Regardless, heroism usually requires one to shed the weight of humanity, excel above and beyond the ordinary citizen to make a lasting, positive impact on the world.

The characters in Kenneth Lonergan’s play, LOBBY HERO, do nothing of the sort. And yet, as the story unfolds, these four characters — an ensemble, each protagonists in their own right — find themselves touching the shiny veneer of the word “hero” and grappling with its meanings and implications.

Chris Klopatek plays Jeff in MCT's production
of LOBBY HERO. Photo: John Neinhuis. 
When we open on the titular character of the play — lobby security guard, Jeff, a wise-cracking man-child with no sense of decorum or filter — it is difficult to see how he could be labeled a hero, even if only a “lobby hero.” With the appearance of the play’s three other characters — by-the-books supervisor, William; on-the-rise cop, Bill; and his on-probation rookie, Dawn — the question of heroism becomes inextricably linked with modes of power and performance. 

Though there is clearly a hierarchy, in which Jeff occupies the bottom rung, and the cops see the security guards as “doormen,” all four characters, by the virtue of their work as protectors, grapple with the complexities of power, authority, and the law. But Lonergan’s skill with LOBBY HERO is extrapolating the reality of their humanness, the painful limitations that restrict these potential heroes not necessarily physically, but morally and ethically.

Morality is understanding the distinction between right and wrong, while ethics is the philosophy of how that morality shapes and guides individual and group behavior. While some critics have called LOBBY HERO a melodrama — what with its murder investigation and sexual politics — Lonergan says the play is “a bit like a fable, a tangled morality play.”[1] Like his previous plays, THIS IS OUR YOUTH (1996) and THE WAVERLEY GALLERY (2000), he infuses LOBBY HERO with naturalism, but this play distinguishes itself with “something more theatrical, […] a bit more heightened.”[2] It is clear from the beginning that all four characters are playing at heroism—Bill as the “Supercop;” Dawn, whose brash attack on a civilian is just one act of many meant to prove her worth in the police force; William, struggling to run a smooth ship, despite personal and professional obstacles; and Jeff, who, despite his goofball personality, is sincere in his desire to be a better version of himself. 

This concept of performance is key because when faced head-on with issues of morality and ethics, these characters become embroiled in “a restless search for a new moral code in response to the failure of the old codes.”[3] In searching for this new moral code, they must be the ones to define it.

Lonergan’s quartet occupies a gray area — in their struggle for goodness, they make plenty of mistakes. At odds with themselves, these are people who see and appreciate heroism, but lack the ability to achieve it. Jeff encapsulates this perfectly when recalling his Naval officer father’s own heroic actions. “It’s actually a really amazing story,” Jeff begins. After listening to how Jeff’s father saved the lives of twenty-three of his fellow Naval men, William remarks, “That’s very impressive,” to which Jeff replies, “Yeah: I know it is impressive.” With a childhood marked by his father’s re-performing of heroism through the act of storytelling, Jeff’s own retelling of the event is imbibed with awe and a deep-seated animosity for a heroism he longs for but struggles to emulate.

Lonergan’s characters tap into the “theatricality” of heroism, if not the actuality of it. For a play about murder, blackmail, and sexual harassment, LOBBY HERO lacks a police drama’s heightened action. Instead, the play encloses the characters in an environmental crucible — a high-rise lobby in Manhattan — where they perform heroism through the myth-building act of conversation and storytelling. We rarely see physical action being taken; instead, we listen to the characters attempt to shape and define their personal narratives, and thus themselves, through the versions of the stories they tell.

"I was interested in people’s personal behavior versus what they expect of themselves,” Lonergan says of this play.[4] This conflict of interior and exterior selves, of expectation and reality, is key to the characters’ interactions with each other. Dawn, for example, plays tough around other cops — ”You make them respect you” — but her partner still sees her as “a little girl wearin’ a police uniform.” William and Jeff argue about responsibility to one’s family while Dawn argues for lawfulness. “[I]t’s still your responsibility to tell the truth and obey the law. You can’t just make it up when there’s some part of it that you don’t like,” she says, to which Jeff counters, “But somebody made up the law, didn’t they? Some people made up the law, a bunch of people like you and me literally sat down and wrote it up[...]” Jeff’s statement notes the inherent myth-building within the old moral codes, inherently flawed because they were created by people. 

Lonergan has mentioned that many characters in his plays are based on real people. The reality of humanness at work here remains central to the characters’ moral and ethical struggle to define themselves and the world around them. Unable to shake their humanity, their quest for heroism is weighed down with real flaws, moral quandaries, biases, and fears.

The world of LOBBY HERO is morally muddy. It’s not surprising then that Lonergan’s characters have difficulty navigating this quagmire, and don’t always come out with the correct answer. The play asks a lot of tough questions of its “heroes” and audiences: What does it mean if you’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? What if doing the right thing means hurting or betraying someone? When are we allowed to decide if the law is right or wrong? Are you still a hero if no else else thinks you are or if you’re maligned for your actions? 

While the play doesn’t easily answer all of the questions, heroism, it seems to say, does not come as simply as donning a cape.

[1]    Kushner, Rachel. “Interview with Kenneth Lonergan,” BOMB Magazine, 2001.
[2]    Ibid.
[3]    Siegel, Ed. “You can count on 'Lobby Hero' for craft, cleverness,” Boston Globe, 2001.
[4]    Renner, Pamela. “Talking Shop (Which Takes In the World),” New York Times, 2001.