Kenneth Lonergan is the Real Thing; Jon Robin Baitz Isn't; Edward Bond's Saved

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I don't know whether Kenneth Lonergan is a great dramatist. Let's talk about that in 50 years, maybe. After seeing three of his plays, though?This Is Our Youth, The Waverly Gallery and now Lobby Hero (I haven't yet seen the Oscar-nominated You Can Count on Me, which he wrote and directed, but will now do so as soon as possible)?I'm ready to declare that he's the real thing. His works are written in deliberate defiance of deadly sameness, taking ordinary, expected, sometimes utterly banal situations and transforming them into the stuff of thrilling discovery?primarily by focusing on the ostensibly simple pictures long and hard enough to draw out the complicated moral goo beneath them.

This is not, thankfully, another extension of the sort of neo-neorealism lately advocated by dramatists like Richard Maxwell and Tom Donaghy, which values banal surfaces for their own sake and fetishizes affectlessness. Particularly This Is Our Youth and Lobby Hero suggest something more like a neo-existentialist drama that has absorbed the lessons of deep focus and the long take from neorealistic film and married them to pressing questions of moral choice, as in Sartre and Camus. We may not live in a calamitous age like the 1940s, when questions about how ordinary people behave in extreme situations were of immediate relevance, but Lonergan seems to be saying that, in a way, that's unfortunate. No one longs for another world war, presumably, but there is a sense in which our failure to ask and refine such questions, to figure out how they fit into our routine, humdrum, tube-soaked lives, is a capitulation to moral laziness and complacency.

The titular character in this new play, directed by Mark Brokaw, is Jeff, a night-shift security guard who minds the desk in the nondescript lobby of a Manhattan high-rise. Played by lanky Glenn Fitzgerald, Jeff is a happy-go-lucky white kid with a wry sense of humor who got kicked out of the Navy for smoking pot and is regarded "as a project" by his black boss William, played with wonderful strength and clarity by Dion Graham. Proud of his own ambitiousness and upstanding honesty, William lectures Jeff about self-esteem, but on the night the play begins, he's troubled by the arrest of his hoodlum brother in connection with an horrendous murder. The background question to the whole story is whether William will lie to provide his brother an alibi, compelled by the incompetence of the public defender and a general conviction that the court system is unfair to blacks.

On top of this, Lonergan overlays a mini-soap opera involving a pair of cops: a pretty, redheaded rookie named Dawn (Heather Burns), whom Jeff has a crush on, and her handsome, mustached villain of a partner, "supercop" Bill (Tate Donovan). Married Bill has been screwing Dawn but also taking long "breaks" in a female friend's apartment in Jeff and William's building while Dawn cools her heels in the lobby, and Jeff lets her know the truth while awkwardly hitting on her. This exposes her to the fury of Bill's extortionate malice, though, and the only way she can think of to save herself is by exploiting Jeff. Ostensibly concerned only with pure measures of right and wrong, she takes advantage of his desire to be open with her, milking him for information about William and his brother. To Lonergan's credit, there are no pure motives in this play. It's all about figuring out how to navigate a sea of impure ones without resorting to the piracy of Bill and his ilk.

Neither the play nor the production is problem-free. Dawn is too dumb, naive and incredulous at the beginning, for instance, to justify her articulate, philosophy-seminar shouting match with Jeff later on. Fitzgerald's downcast eyes and bemused deadpan capture the joker in Jeff, but the "easygoing" and "calming" presence William describes eludes him. Also, the usually reliable Brokaw never solved several key staging problems?a supposedly private conversation by the building door, for instance, leaves Jeff in a confusing limbo of dim light.

Still, Lobby Hero is impressive work. You have to see it to appreciate Lonergan's gift for fascinating misdirection regarding power relations: the question of who needs whom in Jeff and William's opening dialogue, for instance, and the long delay before we know for certain that Bill is a slimeball. Also remarkable is the way the static lobby situation?in which no resident is ever seen coming or going?becomes a sort of ideal intellectual incubator. Not all security guards are inclined to thoughtfulness, but the job does provide time for it, and Lonergan has a gift for tapping that droning, nagging patter inside people's heads that drives them to fill in silences tellingly whenever someone else is present.

In the end, nebbishy Jeff has as much to do with Sartre's Garcin in No Exit as with Miller's soul-searching cop Victor Franz in The Price. Everyone spills their guts to Jeff without once straining probability, talking their way into a morally revelatory space they don't deserve, where they can clearly judge themselves. Then, without any phony epiphanies, they move on to figure out how to live with what they see. With or without an Oscar win?okay, slightly more without?my money's on a bright future for Lonergan.

Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through April 15.

Ten Unknowns
By Jon Robin Baitz Mitzi Newhouse Theater

I wish I could say the same about Jon Robin Baitz, whose Ten Unknowns has a more realistic surface than anything by the neo-neorealists. This play, however, is a textbook example of getting the surface perfect at the expense of almost everything that matters beneath. Baitz set out to write about painting and originality in artmaking, but found he hadn't a single original insight into those subjects. He therefore settled for a compilation of received ideas and cliches, more evasive, in its way, than John Patrick Shanley's recent substitution of huffing and puffing for artistic creation in Cellini at Second Stage.

Donald Sutherland heads up the first-rate cast in this production directed by Daniel Sullivan, playing Malcolm Raphelson, a figurative painter rejected in the age of abstract expressionism who went off to Mexico to nurse his wounds and stayed there for decades. The action takes place in his dirty but orderly south Mexico studio?designed with clinical accuracy by Ralph Funicello?where we learn that, after years of blockage, he's suddenly become fruitful again. The icebreaker was the arrival of a young assistant named Judd Sturgess (Justin Kirk), a talented painter with a history of undermining himself with drugs and booze. Judd is the former boyfriend of Malcolm's greedy art dealer, Trevor Fabricant (Denis O'Hare), who seems to have presold the new works before Malcolm has agreed to sell or exhibit them. By the appearance of the fourth character, a biology grad student named Julia Bryant (Julianna Margulies), in Mexico to study endangered native frogs, any spectator who doesn't suspect that Judd probably painted Malcolm's new work has probably been asleep.

Julia is the witness Baitz obviously thought he needed for the showdown between Malcolm and Judd that he never quite got around to writing. She seems to exist now solely because everyone knows that science students are always exploited by their professors, and that provides a neat echo. An echo of what, though? Every time the action gets near the expected meaty, private conversation between artist and assistant, which might seize on the issue of collaborative creation and take the play someplace unpredictable, it's deflected by some cheap coincidence (a drinking jag, a sudden entrance, a telephone ring). Thus, in the age of digital sampling, Internet data networks and electronic libraries, Baitz pretends that the sanctity of individual creation is inviolable?tucking his copout into a single line about "joint custody" being impossible to work out.

The old romantic notion of the single, promethean creator-artist, armored in his sacred copyright, is of course the main legal and social pillar beneath bloodsuckers like Trevor Fabricant, and clearly Baitz didn't notice that. If he had, I wonder how likely it would've been that his play would be seen at Lincoln Center, or would soon be transferring to Broadway. Deadly sameness indeed.

Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St. (betw. B'way &Amsterdam Ave.), 362-7600, through April 15.

By Edward Bond Theatre for a New Audience (closed)

I was glad to see Edward Bond's Saved, the play that ended censorship in England in 1968, given its first major New York production in three decades, but I thought it fairly obvious that the director Robert Woodruff didn't understand the world of the drama. I've heard through the grapevine that Bond was present in rehearsals and exerted enormous influence over this production, and that puzzles me even more than its predominantly favorable reviews. Perhaps Bond, too, isn't an ideal conduit for his terrific play at this point.

When people feel shocked by the baby-stoning scene in Saved, they seem to interpret their feelings as proof that the production has given the horrific act a sensible fictional context. To me, this production did nothing of the kind. The cast spent most of its time groping about for actions that might look persuasively evil but were in fact flagrant indication. The self-conscious spareness of the staging was its own sort of minimalistic crutch, the gimmicky dues to that minimalism pretending to cover over the fluctuating, uneven quality of everyone's meanness.

Worse, the lead character, Len, was simplistically misconceived as a nice guy duped by the big bad world around him, which drained the play of interesting questions after 15 minutes. Len must occupy a point on the spectrum of evil depicted in this play, so the audience has reason to wonder what will happen even after the baby is killed. Without that basic complexity, the whole thing comes off as a grotesque experiment in fictional disaster tourism.

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