Broadway and Beyond

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JIM COOPER/AP

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh

What makes a playwright hot? An Academy Award nomination helps. Kenneth Lonergan has been churning out plays for years ("This Is Our Youth," "The Waverly Gallery") to mounting acclaim, but it was his screenplay for the Oscar contender "You Can Count on Me" that really put him on the map. I wish I could share in the enthusiasm for Lonergan's work. But his latest play, "Lobby Hero" (at Playwrights Horizons in New York City), shows off all his strengths and weaknesses, with the latter narrowly winning out once again.

Lonergan specializes in smart comedy-dramas of urban contemporary life, sprinkled with laughs but exploring serious moral issues, usually through the prism of a determinedly quirky central character. In "Lobby Hero," that person is Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), a woebegone night security guard who must decide whether to help his boss cover up the possible involvement of the boss's brother in a murder. Things get complicated when the case comes to the attention of two cops, a female rookie and her veteran partner, who are grappling with some ethical issues of their own.

All this is watchable enough, because Lonergan writes sharp dialogue and has more respect for plot than many playwrights these days. But none of it sticks to the ribs. Some blame goes to the actors (as Dawn, the female cop, Heather Burns has no street cred at all) and to Mark Brokaw's direction, which is too broad. But the fault lies mostly with Lonergan, who betrays his much vaunted realism with contrivance and cheap laughs at every turn. Example: Jeff, the cutely self-aware nincompoop, doesn't want to betray his boss's confidence, so he tells the whole story to Dawn by disguising it, ineptly, as a "hypothetical" case, a ruse she sees through in about five seconds. Pure sitcom schtick — like too much in Lonergan's work.

Martin McDonagh was once a hot playwright too, a few years back, when "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," the first of his Leenane trilogy, introduced this talented London-based playwright to America. Next came "The Lonesome West," but now that "A Skull in Connemara" has arrived (at off-Broadway's Gramercy Theater), the critics seem to have lost interest. True, McDonagh's mordant vision of rural Irish life is pretty familiar by now, and "Connemara" does not have the structural neatness or the tragic force of "Beauty Queen." But it has something that Lonergan's plays don't have: a resonance outside the theater.

We're in McDonagh country again for sure. Two gravediggers, whose job is to clear out old corpses in the local cemetery so new ones can be buried in their place, dig up the remains of one fellow's late wife. She turns out to have a huge gash in her skull, implying that her husband might have murdered her. Much of this, believe it or not, is played for laughs (in one scene the pair smash a skeleton to smithereens), but McDonagh's comedy, unlike Lonergan's, never seems pasted on, or patronizing. We never lose sight of the dark drama beneath it: the harrowing picture of human beings driven half-mad by lives of crabbed, inbred isolation.

McDonagh writes like a dream, and he's been given maybe the best performance of an Irish play by an American cast I've ever seen. Now all he needs is an Oscar nomination.