Both The Lyric Stage and The Huntington Theatre come up winners again with their second offerings of the 2001/2002 season, Lobby Hero and Betty's Summer Vacation. Scott Edmiston, the Huntington's Artistic Associate, is at the helm for the Lyric production with the blessing of his boss, Nicholas Martin, who's in charge of the shenanigans back home at The Huntington.
Both plays take on contemporary society and each, in its own distinctive way, tackles some interesting ethical dilemmas and raises the question of fairness when dealing with the consequences of one's actions.
Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero, the better play by a mile, explores the necessity of honesty in all things. He plays this off against the sticky issues of loyalty, trust and responsibility that arise between any boss/mentor and a rookie who's still in a probationary period, both on the job and in life.
This quagmire unfolds in the standard-issue lobby of a Manhattan high-rise apartment (perfectly realized by set designer Sarah Sullivan) over four successive nights. A pair of security guards and a pair of real cops become involved with each other in connection with an alibi offered by a young man who may be involved in a brutal murder.
The central character Jeff (Jason Schuchman) is a late twenty-something whose ambition in life runs to nothing more than keeping his job as the night doorman long enough to afford his own place. Things are looking up for him, if he can manage to stay awake through his shift. Not an easy feat when the only folks who pass through the lobby are his supervisor (Ricardo Engermann), a straight arrow bent on running a tight ship, and the officers on the neighborhood beat. The cops visit regularly so Bill (Robert Pemberton) can pay his respects to a lady of questionable repute while his partner (Cortney Keim), a slightly over zealous new recruit, cools her heels downstairs.
A lot of what happens is the result of the idle chitchat that begins innocently enough as a way to pass the time at work but grows into admissions of a more personal nature, some better left unsaid. Edmiston skillfully guides his actors from the easy posturing of their early encounters with each other through the emotional aftermath of what comes from these revelations.
All four of these fine, local actors capture the "public" exterior of these men and women in uniform. Each one in turn gets to exercise his or her relative position of authority or advantage over the others. All along we catch glimpses of the inner quirks and foibles of these human beings behind their badges. Eventually, each one is caught off guard - no pun intended - and has to reevaluate his or her position.
Although Lonergan opts out for a sentimental ending, his talent for writing dialogue keeps things humming. He also has cornered the market on underachievers (sometimes in the guise of an overachiever) with a knack for not getting it quite right. For more information on Lobby Hero, which runs through November 24th, visit: www.lyricstage.com
Betty's Summer Vacation, as imagined by Christopher Durang, is anything but sentimental. He starts off innocently enough as if this were the recipe for any normal playwriting exercise. Take four summer shares: one perfectly sane young lady (Betty / Jessica Stone), one compulsive talker with an abusive childhood (Trudy / Colleen Quinlan), one sensitive, quiet young man who may also be a serial killer (Keith / Nat DeWolf) and one hunk with way too much testosterone (Buck / Terrrence Riordan.) Add to the mix the suddenly widowed and homeless landlady of the cottage (Mrs. Siezmagraff / Andrea Martin) and her dinner guest, a deranged flasher she found on the beach (Mr. Vanislaw / Jeremiah Kissel).
Now, rather than a tepid sitcom, you've got a jaded, satirical look at our society's obsession with lurid crimes, celebrity trials and talk show confessionals. Oh, yes, and, Durang being Durang, throw in some voices in the ceiling (John Kuntz, Bonnie Lee Whang and Jonno Roberts) as a kind of warped Greek chorus to keep things lively. And spare nothing in terms of language, subject matter or visuals.
Certainly, The Huntington's never seen anything like this before. In fact, Boston being Boston, Durang's earlier play, Sister Mary Ignatious Explains it All for You, was banned here. The Huntington subscribers have been forewarned about Betty ... In keeping with the spirit of things, the usually staid Huntington Spotlight has been transformed into The Huntington Inquirer. Anyone who takes the time to look it over rather than tossing it straight into the junk mail recycling bin or turning it over to the authorities as a suspicious piece of mail, has an inkling of what's in store.
Whether you like the play or not and despite your personal barometer for what constitutes the boundaries of good taste, there's a riotous good time to be had here, especially when things really get cooking in the second act. While all the actors are excellent and Nicholas Martin maintains just the right parental hand over the goings on, it's the other Martin - Andrea - who makes this production inspired. She's all of the Marx Brothers rolled into one person. And who needs Court TV when we can watch Ms. Martin perform a mock trial singlehandedly? Small wonder that she has enough energy left to come out for the curtain call. Or, for that matter, that audience members don't need to be assisted from their seats and helped home, overcome by exhaustion from screaming and laughing and applauding.
So, get thee to the Huntington website at www.huntingtontheatre.org for tickets before they're all gone. Betty's Summer Vacation ends for her - and for you -- on November 25th.