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Ethical choices and chuckles fill the Lobby at Beck Center.

William (Jimmie D. Woody, left) earns the respect of - the conflicted Jeff (Matthew Joslyn).
  • William (Jimmie D. Woody, left) earns the respect of the conflicted Jeff (Matthew Joslyn).
One of the ways we define ourselves in the world is how we relate to authority figures. From the least among us to Donald Trump, we all have people of one sort or another who wield influence over our lives, and the way we respond to that authority goes a long way in determining who we are.

In the thoroughly engrossing Lobby Hero, now at Beck Center's Studio Theater, playwright Kenneth Lonergan (he wrote the movie You Can Count on Me) introduces us to Jeff, a young slacker with zero leverage over his life, who possesses a goofy reliance on the ultimate power of truth. Jeff recently got tossed out of the Navy for smoking weed and is now ensconced behind a tall desk as the graveyard-shift security guard at a New York apartment house. He doesn't get many visitors, except his supervisor and a couple of beat cops, but those icons of authority are enough to trigger a study of moral choices woven into some perceptively clever dialogue.

Jeff looks up to his security-guard captain, an African American named William, as a beacon of common sense and success. The new rent-a-cop has even gamely tried to read a book William recommended, The Six Habits of Self-Motivated People, but admits that he was only motivated enough to read the first two. It soon becomes apparent that Jeff is essentially an unfiltered gusher of thoughts and feelings, all of which are expressed moment-by-moment with guileless sincerity (admitting that he has an approach-avoidance issue with people in uniforms, he says, "My last girlfriend was a tollbooth collector, and she intimidated the shit out of me!").

This stream-of-consciousness candor constantly gets Jeff in trouble with his boss, who is more grounded and is currently dealing with the arrest of his brother on a charge of gang-rape and murder. William doesn't know whether to corroborate his brother's false alibi -- that they were at a movie together at the time of the attack -- or tell the truth and rely on the city's flawed judicial system, especially as it relates to minorities. The moral choices are complicated further when Bill, a cocky veteran policeman, stops by to "visit a friend" in Jeff's building, with rookie female cop Dawn in tow. It turns out that the upstairs friend is Bill's fuck-buddy and that Dawn, who's already slept with Bill, has a crush on her married partner.

There are clearly many ethical conundrums in play regarding institutions of authority: Should Jeff tell the police that William's brother's alibi is a lie? Should Dawn report Bill's dalliance to the chief, even if it ruins her own relationship with him and brands her a snitch in the NYPD? All this moralistic baggage makes the play extremely talky -- but what wonderful talk it is. Lonergan masterfully shapes four distinct personalities and sends them rattling against each other as they try to pursue their individual interpretations of correct behavior. Somehow, the playwright never lets the weight of the characters' decisions overwhelm the comedy. (Trying to come on to Dawn, Jeff awkwardly says: "You've got a uniform, I've got a uniform, let's get together!" Dawn's wry reply: "You meet a lot of girls this way?")

In a supremely able cast, Matthew Joslyn is spectacular as Jeff. An electrified, spring-loaded coil of unfocused energy, Joslyn makes Jeff as infuriating as he is lovable, launching observations that from anyone else would seem embarrassing. Talking about Bill's visits to the lady upstairs, he says, "I hate to see guys get away with that, 'cause that's what I want to get away with, but I can't figure out how to do it." Jimmie D. Woody makes William's agonizing choice palpably poignant, balancing his real concern for helping hapless Jeff with his need to do right by his family. As Bill, Paul Floriano oozes the smarmy, badge-wearing superiority that often leads to abuse of power. And Jennifer Clifford's Dawn is perfectly calibrated between a posture of self-assurance with Jeff and her vulnerability to the whims of Bill and his cop cronies.

All these elements merge smoothly under the firm and sensitive direction of Seth Gordon, who brings to life the comical morality play that Lonergan intended. And because Gordon is unafraid to have his actors take risks, often speaking on top of each other during excited moments (as real people do), he creates a completely believable scenario that demands attention, even through a rather overexplicated second act. The only odd component is Don McBride's impressive set of polished green marble and wood, which looks more like an upscale corporate entryway than that of a midlevel Manhattan apartment.

All in all, this is one of the rare lobbies you'll enjoy hanging out in for a couple hours. And you'll have plenty to discuss after you leave.

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