Returning to the role he originated 10 years ago, stage and screen actor (and TV director) Tate Donovan is about to appear in a radio theater production of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, for a short run at the Skirball Cultural Center.
As part of its weekly public radio show, L.A. Theatre Works will stage and record the five performances, June 15-19, under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo. The cast also includes Michael Weston, Cedric Sanders and Emily Swallow.
Donovan, who plays senior New York police officer Bill,Â has appeared previously with L.A. Theatre Works in Prelude To A Kiss and Hay Fever. In this production of Lobby Hero, Tate reprises the role that he originated Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon in 2001.
L.A. Theatre Works stages radio theater productions of a wide range of plays, from contemporary to classic theater. After three days of rehearsal, five performances are presentedÂ in front of live audiences of around 350 people each at Skirball Cultural Center, captured by radio mikes, minus sets and costumes.Â Alongside the actors on stage is a foley artist who creates live sound effects.
Lobby Hero will be recorded for future radio broadcast, to air locally on 89.3 FM KPCCÂ and also on public radio stations across the country.Â All five performances are recorded, and the best takes of each night are edited together to form the final broadcast CD. The CD will be available for purchase through L.A. Theatre Works’ Audio Theatre Collection, and the plays also can be streamed on demand at www.latw.org.
Recalls Donovan, “I did the original production [of Lobby Hero] at Playwrights Horizons 10 years ago, and I remember when I was doing it, I talked to Susan Albert Loewenberg, a producer over at L.A. Theatre Works, about it. I’ve done a bunch of radio plays for them over the years.”
Donovan suggested Lobby Hero for the radio series back then. “It finally came around. But first they did Kenny’s [Lonergan’s] This Is Our Youth, which was Kenny’s first play that did well.”
Lobby Hero is aÂ wry and comic modern morality play about crime and personal responsibility. The action plays out in a lobby of a New York City apartment building where Jeff is a security guard on the night shift.Â When his supervisor lies during a murder investigation, Jeff’s loyalty is put to the test. Donovan plays the self-assured NYPD veteran Bill, whose partner Dawn is a young rookie cop.
Donovan says Loewenberg recently called him in New York and asked if he wanted to be a part of the radio presentation. The actor laughs quietly, “I’m actually now the right age to play the character, the senior cop. The last time I was a little too young for it. They call my character “˜Big Bill.’ I’m a bad-ass.” A decorated police officer with years on the force, Donovan’s character isn’t above sneaking off for a quickie while he’s on the job. “I wouldn’t say I was corrupt or anything, just a bit skeevy,” the handsome actor clarifies.
With its balanced cast of two apartment building security officers and two police officers, Lonergan presents a study of human nature and the damage caused by questionable motives. Themes of sexual jealousy, police corruption, racial tension and the quest for honor are all touched on in this humorous but corrosive play.
Donovan explains, “Like any decent play, no one character is all good or all bad. It’s just a really great play that poses some moral questions. The character of Jeff is the “˜lobby hero,’ but there are four characters and each of them could be considered the “˜lobby hero’ at some time during the play. Everyone is pulling the rope for what they want, and you can’t really say any one of them is better than the other.”
On performing in radio plays.
Donovan has performed for the L.A. Theatre Works radio series several times in the past and also performed radio plays for the BBC in London.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “There is less pressure. You perform it over five nights, so it’s not as if you have to nail it. You have the script in your hand and it’s generally a good time.”
The actors aren’t performing only for the microphones. “There’s an audience there, and you do feel them. That’s what makes it so much fun. It’s always sold out, too,” Donovan adds, with a hint of astonishment in his warm voice. “I’m always shocked at how many people come and watch these productions.” Donovan is certain audiences are bound to enjoy the radio presentation.Â “Another good thing about Lobby Hero is it’s super funny. Kenny is a really funny writer.”
Performing in a Tony-nominated play.
Donovan just wrapped the premiere of Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire, on Broadway. The actor played a Boston “Southie” — from a very poor neighborhood — who has made good but whose past crops up in the guise of an old flame (Frances McDormand, of Fargo fame) looking for a life-line.
“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, that’s for sure,” Donovan says.
Good People was nominated for a Tony award for Best Play, and McDormand won the TonyÂ for Best Actress in a Play at the ceremony last Sunday. The New York Times praised Donovan’s performance, saying he “makes Mike an artful study in willed amnesia, and the pain that surprises him when Margie summons the ghosts of their shared past is all the more palpable by not being directly expressed.”
Donovan, who also appeared in Lindsay-Abaire’s renowned Rabbit Hole at the Geffen Playhouse, claims that Good People is the best play he’s ever been involved in. “In the first scene Frances McDormand’s character loses her job, and she is convinced by her friends to hit up her old high school, uh, fling, who has become a successful doctor. There are few people who make it out of this insular, uneducated, sort of bad neighborhood. I don’t mind seeing her again, but I don’t have a job for her. She ends up coming to my house in the second act and she makes a lot of trouble for me.”
“It’s one of the great plays of the modern era,” Donovan contends. “It’s crazy good. [Lindsay-Abaire] is my favorite writer; every single play he does is so different. The world, the characters, the language, the genre ““ it’s amazing. Meanwhile, he’s super funny.”
McDormand is actually six years older than Donovan ““ how was it playing an older role? Donovan says he wasn’t too concerned about it. “Yeah, I grew a beard and we made it a little grey. On stage we looked right.”
On the campaign trail.
Away from the stage, Donovan campaigned for Barack Obama during his U.S. presidential election campaign in 2008. Recalls Donovan, “That was an amazing experience. I started working on an HBO documentary called By The People by a friend of mine who directed it, Amy Rice, and I was in Iowa for the primaries. It was amazing to be there. They sent me to firehouses and high schools and I was knocking on doors. It wasn’t very glamorous, but I got to see parts of the country that I normally never would have, and all for a great cause. It was an incredible experience and I’ll do it again if they want me to. I still think he’s the finest leader. We’re a very lucky country to have Obama as our President.”
Donovan mentions the sobering context of the first season of Lobby Hero. “It was right before 9/11. We did it for 10 months and our final performance was September 9, and then I immediately flew back to LA.”Â Two days later the Twin Towers were hit and New York City was plunged into chaos. “This play kinda shows cops in, ah, not the best light, and after 9/11 every cop and firefighter in New York were heroes and everyone was in love with them.”
That didn’t prevent South Coast Repertory from presenting the Southland premiere of Lobby Hero in early 2002 (the LA premiere was at the Odyssey Theatre in 2004). “Now it’s back to normal,” Donovan jokes. “Cops are just normal people like everyone else. But this play is kind of tough on cops.”
Behind the camera.
These days Donovan keeps busy acting and also directing television shows.Â “After Lobby Hero, I’m going back to New York to direct an episode of Gossip Girl and then maybe a couple of Glees. It’s fun. I really love it.” He’s also heading back to his old TV show Damages to direct a few episodes this winter. He seems enthusiastic about the prospect of getting back behind the camera. “I love it ““ it’s great. If I could manage to do both [act and direct] for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy guy, that’s for sure. Being a director has really helped my acting, and I’m sure starting out as an actor has helped my directing.”
** All production photography by Joan Marcus
Lobby Hero, produced by Susan Loewenberg for LA Theatre Works; Wed.,-Fri., June 15-17 at 8 pm;”¨ Sat, June 18 at 2:30 pm;”¨ Sun, June 19 at 4 pm. Tickets:”¨$20-49. L.A. Theatre Works “¨ at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.”¨Los Angeles. 310-827-0889 or http://www.latw.org/.
L.A. Theatre Works’ syndicated radio theater series, which broadcasts weekly on public radio stations nationwide, can be heard locally in Southern California on 89.3 KPCC every Saturday from 10 pm to midnight, and can also be streamed on demand at http://www.latw.org/.