Lobby Hero

Artist Repertory Second Stage at the IFCC, 5340 N. Interstate, 241-1278, Tues-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 & 7 pm, through May 30, $15-30

M uch like his sensational film You Can Count on Me (2000), the characters in Kenneth Lonergan's newest play Lobby Hero babble endlessly, about their love lives, about their insecurities and dreams and longings. Often they babble because they don't know what else to do--to fill an awkward pause. In short, they talk like real people, their rhythm locking us in tight with the bonds of familiarity.

"I never tried to do anything," concludes Jeff (Neal Starbird), Lobby Hero's security guard protagonist, with poignant self-awareness. Scruffy and debt-addled, he reads comic books to while away the hours of his graveyard shifts behind the front desk of a New York apartment building. He speaks vaguely of some day moving on to better things, but his lanky self-assurance paints a picture of general contentment. We realize he's never tried to do anything not because he's scared to, but because he's never felt the need to. And yet, Jeff is a lay-about with some vinegar. He refuses to let his boss, William (Garfield Wedderburn), push him around, and as a result earns a reluctant respect from him. The two forge a tentative friendship, which culminates when William confides in Jeff his plan to claim a false alibi for his brother, who has been arrested for allegedly raping and killing a white woman. William is black, and terrified of what will happen to his brother if he's found guilty. His predicament leads him to seek help from a corrupt cop, Bill (Scott Coopwood, terrifically menacing), who will help his lie take root. Meanwhile, the cop's partner Dawn (Julie Jeske), still an uncomfortable rookie, gets to know Jeff while Bill takes breaks from their shift to go upstairs and screw his girlfriend.

ART's production of all this (and much more) is wisely unobtrusive, letting the words and director Diane Englert's pitch-perfect casting carry the load. Starbird has been doing great work in Portland for a while now, but this performance is his tour de force. His shambling, dorky charm is so effortless you forget he's even acting. It epitomizes a play that never stops coasting, sailing through a sea of trials and tribulations with exquisite ease. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS