Made of Honor

 

Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero is the kind of play audiences might not want, but it’s a play they need. The show is weighty and thought-provoking — it tackles racial profiling, sexual harassment and the dangerous arrogance some law officers carry closer than their weapons — but it isn’t the least bit didactic or stuffy. That it’s also amusing and moving is a testament to director Mark Robbins and four young actors with laudable range.

The title character is named Jeff, a self-described “fuck-up” who works security on the graveyard shift at a New York City high-rise. In an astonishing performance by Henry Vick, he’s an immensely likable goofball whose sly, adolescent humor causes him to follow a lot of comments with “Just kidding.” More than that, he’s smarter than people realize; he’s forever underestimated, which makes others brazenly, if stupidly, honest.

Overseeing his mindless work is William (Brian Hunter), an African-American man whose defenses are always a little thorny because he believes the world sees his color before any of his other qualities — though he’s more aware of it than anyone else and wears it like a uniform. Rounding out the play’s quartet are Dawn (Katie Gilchrist), a new officer, and her partner, Bill (Brian Paulette), who cherishes himself like a crazed dictator.

They’re brought to a moral crossroads when William admits that his brother has been arrested and charged with murdering and raping a nurse in a bungled robbery. Comforted by Jeff’s guilelessness, William confides that his alibi is fictitious. Bill and Dawn also have stories that don’t jibe with Jeff’s perception of reality — he’s a firm believer in people’s goodness. Lonergan’s skillful writing, though, doesn’t equate this trait with naivete. Jeff’s a man of honor in a world of dishonorable intentions.

Atif Rome’s set design consists entirely of the apartment building’s front lobby, with the door just as off-center as the characters. Robbins places several scenes there and, with astute direction, manages to have the door either locked or unlocked in a way that parallels the varying degrees of emotional openness on display — it creates pauses and beats that aren’t necessarily in the writing but give the play a jerky momentum that keeps you guessing.

The play is densely layered with lies big and small. Yet, for all its thoughtfulness, it doesn’t wield a message like so many contemporary, torn-from-the-headlines scripts. It’s a mini-epic about the meaning and responsibility of truth.
Postscript: At the Princess Squid benefit last month at Balanca’s, gossip among actors was less about the splash the young theater troupe was making and more about the belly flop they’d read in The Kansas City Star the day before.

On August 16, the paper ran a profile of Missouri Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Peter Altman, in anticipation of Altman’s contract renewal. In it, Star theater critic Robert Trussell ultimately asserted that Altman had been good for and to Kansas City.

Actors at the benefit dismissed the article as “a blow job,” making it clear that Altman’s popularity ranks in the same ballpark as, say, John Ashcroft’s.

“Yes, the financial quality at the Rep has improved,” Scott Cordes told the Pitch. “And when I work backstage [at the Rep], I make more than I used to — and I like working backstage.” Cordes, who has won numerous Best Of Kansas City citations from the Pitch as well as a Drama Desk award or two, is starring in Princess Squid’s Miss Julie. A special Equity contract allows him to work in the alternative theater — which he’s doing because, well, he sees no other alternative. “I couldn’t even get a reading for The Front Page,” he said of the show that opens the Rep’s new season.

“I chose to live here instead of New York or Chicago to raise my kids,” Cordes continued. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not a major league player or as good as people from those cities. There’s an all-star lineup of actors, designers and artists in this town.”

“The situation is grim,” said actor Jennifer Mays, who has worked on the Rep’s stage under Altman’s reign — as a chorus girl in Guys and Dolls.

Discontent continued to fester following Trussell’s story. By the end of the week, actor Elizabeth Robbins had sent an e-mail to her peers and local theater supporters. “We need to depose Peter Altman as director of the Missouri Rep,” she wrote, noting that time was of the essence because his contract was under review.

“During his three-year term, [Altman] has fired Kansas City carpenters, props artisans, designers and members of the stage management team,” Robbins charged. “Out-of-town directors are told that we cannot be considered for any supporting or leading roles, but are only available for walk-ons and understudy assignments.

“Peter Altman is bringing in an average of three to four shows (actors, set, director, et al.) per season from other theatres, leaving the KC artistic community with even fewer audition opportunities at the Rep. He allows local actors to populate the yearly production of A Christmas Carol only because he has no interest in the production at all, other than its value as a consistent, yearly money-maker.”

When Kansas City actor John Rensenhouse, a veteran of regional theaters across the country who is now on tour with The Lion King, got wind of the Star article and Robbins’ e-mail, he joined the fray, saying he planned to send a letter to the theater’s board of directors supporting Robbins’ plaints. “Altman has clearly demonstrated bias against local actors,” Rensenhouse told the Pitch from St. Louis.

Asked for a comment from Altman, the Rep’s publicist, Laura Muir, said he was out of town but spoke on his behalf. “Peter enjoys living here and has become a part of the community. He has come to know Kansas City and Kansas Citians, including the acting pool, and he has great respect for them,” Muir said.

But that’s not what local actors hear, according to Robbins and others. “Mr. Altman speaks disparagingly of our theatre and of our city to anyone who will listen,” her e-mail contends. “Kansas City’s theatrical artists are suffering artistically and financially because of Mr. Altman’s regional prejudices.”

Missouri Rep Managing Director Bill Prenevost disputes many of the statements in Robbins’ e-mail. “The firings? That’s false,” he says. “Bringing in three or four shows a year? False. We only brought in Two Pianos, Four Hands last season. We coproduce shows with other theaters, but that’s a different thing.

“I will say that Peter has talked disparagingly about the Spencer Theater and how badly it had been maintained,” Prenevost continues. Of the casting situation, he says, “In the 2002-03 season, we employed 216 artists, 144 of whom were local. Even if you take away the 23 understudies and A Christmas Carol, it’s still 71 local positions to 72 nonlocals. But you have a thing in the theater called competition. Peter only goes out of town [to cast] to give directors more choices.”

Robbins remains unapologetic about her e-mail. “The purpose of regional theater is to use the actors who are here or who have moved here,” she tells the Pitch, noting that she and her actor husband, Mark Robbins, came to Kansas City from Chicago. “All the actors want here is a level playing field.”

Says one prominent theater insider, “If Altman gets only a one-year contract extension, that will be seen as a victory.”

Categories: A&E, Stage