Tangled Up in Blue

Soon after making the year’s best movie, You Can Count On Me, Kenneth Lonergan delights us with his irrepressible Lobby Hero, confirming him as a comic wizard. To have written those and the unforgettable This Is Our Youth would have lasted many authors a lifetime, but with Lonergan we get the feeling of a life force just getting into full swing.

The antic center of the new play is Jeff, an amiably shiftless young man on the night watch as security guard at a generic East Side high-rise. The captain in charge of this and other buildings, William, is barely older and meticulous, doing scrupulous late-night checkups on the watchfulness of his staff. Jeff, who is a kidder, and William, who is superconscientious, engage in bizarrely dialectic duologues. William warns Jeff that one day he’ll “wake up in a lobby just like this one, except everyone’s gonna be calling you Pops,” and that listening to William’s admonishments would have saved this “callous, careless kind of joke-telling, sit-on-my-ass-my-whole-life type of person” from becoming a “doddering useless old unemployed Pops doorman.”

William: Okay. Keep laughing, Jeff. ‘Cause the joker laughs last. And the joker’s gonna laugh last at you.

Jeff: What do you mean, like the Joker from Batman?

William: No… . I just mean – like, you know, like the generic joker. Like the laughing figure of Fate, or whatever you want to call it.

Jeff: Oh, sure, that joker. Everyone’s terrified of him.

There is something a bit skewed, a bit loopy about Lonergan people who wend their way through life widdershins, and Lonergan talk that is really front-stoop (or lobby) philosophizing. So, too, we get Bill, the cocky veteran policeman, and Dawn, his insecure rookie partner who doesn’t know her own strength. Though Dawn is sleeping with Bill, a married father, he also has sessions with the call girl in 22J while his unsuspecting partner is made to cool her heels in the lobby. While Dawn may be in trouble for having hit an attacking drunk too hard in the eye, William wrestles with the problem of providing his unstable brother, involved in the killing of a nurse, with a fake alibi.

The interaction of Jeff, William, Bill, and Dawn becomes a deliciously discordant string quartet in Lonergan’s hands, especially after Jeff reveals to Dawn what Bill is really up to in 22J. As Jeff prattles on to the hurt and seething Dawn, who bids him to shut up, he replies: “Sure. I’d be glad to. Why don’t you say something for a few seconds and then I’ll say something back and we’ll go on like that. I’m a goddamn security guard, for Christ’s sake. I’m lonely as shit. I’ll shut up. I’d love to hear somebody else talk.” But she won’t respond as he importunes her about “illicit kind of behind-the-scenes, in-the-back-of-the-squad-car-type romances.”

I confess to being a sucker for these slightly bumbling, sweetly pathetic Lonergan shenanigans, and for a play in which all the characters are sympathetic screwups. Especially Dawn, a particularly lovable loser, whom Heather Burns, despite some shrillness, plays enchantingly. Tate Donovan is fine as an only slightly crooked cop, and Glenn Fitzgerald is winning as the frustrated doorman full of ingenuous guile. Best is Dion Graham as the Captain, William, baffled between dutifulness and brotherly devotion. Mark Brokaw has directed with delicate compassion in Allen Moyer’s bitingly realistic set. Lobby Hero ends in an understatedly touching gesture, fraught with that insidiously lingering Lonerganian resonance.

Noël Coward’s Design for Living is a play about the convoluted way in which two men and a woman, each loving and betraying the other two, fumble their way through to a happy ménage à trois. It was a bit of a shocker in 1932, not only because of its defense of amorality but also because of its discreetly implied homosexual undertones. A bit faded now, its dialogue unsteadily scintillating, it still displays the suavity and sophistication that are Coward’s trademarks.

Along comes Joe Mantello to direct the play as offensively in-your-face low camp, its implications exploding into lip-smacking explicitness. If Otto is to greet Leo with a warm embrace, Mantello has Alan Cumming hurling himself at Dominic West and clamping both legs around West’s waist as he nuzzles him effusively. If Otto and Leo, both abandoned by Gilda (Jennifer Ehle), are getting drunk together, every swig of brandy produces ludicrous contortions in them, and they end up not drunkenly crying on each other’s shoulder as the text demands but avidly smooching.

A passionate leap across a sofa back to reach a beloved becomes a clownish somersault along the entire length of the couch. When Otto, sneaking up from behind, mistakes Leo for Gilda, he plunges onto his body and copulatorily covers it. People meant to be fully clothed lounge around in dishabille; Otto and Leo, intended to be wearing individual pajamas, share one pair instead. Even someone remarking in polite company about somebody who “had one of the longest beards I’ve ever seen” is given a suggestive pause after longest, eliciting obscene cachinnations from the groundlings.

Enough to sink this production, however, is the mere casting of Alan Cumming as Otto. Remembered as the sleazily scabrous emcee in Cabaret, the grotesque-looking, eyebrow-ring-wearing Cumming is perfect for slippery figures of devious sexuality but about as suited for a romantic lead as a drag queen for Butch Cassidy. This wrecks the requisite triangle by bending one of its sides away from closure at the apex. Jennifer Ehle, despite an unflattering period hairdo, and Dominic West, perhaps a trifle too callow, struggle valiantly but keep foundering on Alan Cumming.

Mantello and his costumer, Bruce Pask, have worsened things by bedizening Cumming in frippery and footwear that would raise eyebrows in a gay bar, and Robert Brill’s Art Deco sets, admittedly imposing, have an unfortunate way of dwarfing the characters. I kept feeling sorry for Coward, whose piquantly iridescent sexuality and neatly corseted emotions Mantello let hang out into vaudeville histrionics and unbridled vulgarity.

Lobby Hero
Directed by Mark Brokaw at Playwrights Horizons.
Design for Living
Directed by Joe Mantello
at the American Airlines Theatre.

Tangled Up in Blue