By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Nov 22, 2016 at 6:56 PM

Public service announcement: Get used to hearing the name Kenneth Lonergan a lot in the next couple of months.

Now, for movie and theater buffs, the name should certainly strike a chord. After all, the playwright/screenwriter/director built an impressive resume in the late ’90s and early ’00s, writing the Pulitzer-nominated play "The Waverley Gallery," writing and directing the Oscar-nominated film "You Can Count On Me," and co-writing Martin Scorsese’s "Gangs of New York" – just to name a few accomplishments.

His momentum hit a brutal snag in 2005, however, when he began filming "Margaret," his second directorial effort that, thanks to behind-the-scenes drama, never saw the light of day until 2011 (the legal litigation wouldn’t end until three years later). And even then, it was a limited release of something far from his original vision.

Even with an almost-decade-long speedbump, however, Lonergan’s reputation grew. "Margaret" still received some raves – the eventual three-hour director’s cut, even more so – and now his latest project, the grieving family drama "Manchester By the Sea," appears to be his biggest success so far, maintaining a major foothold in Oscar talk, especially for Lonergan and star Casey Affleck, ever since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January. 

The film isn’t expected to hit Milwaukee until early December, but for those looking for an early look at Lonergan’s work, the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre will open a production of his "Lobby Hero" starting Wednesday Nov. 23. The show – a mix of comedy and cop drama – tells the story of Jeff, a lowly lobby security guard suddenly drawn into a murder investigation.

Before the show hits the stage, OnMilwaukee chatted with director C. Michael Wright to talk about what makes Lonergan’s material special and how to find natural performances. 

OnMilwaukee: What is it about Kenneth Lonergan’s work that speaks so much to people?

C. Michael Wright: I love it because there’s a real honesty to his dialogue. Like, "Lobby Hero" is full of overlapping dialogue – the way people really talk – interrupting each other and echoing thoughts. There’s an honesty, and there’s a humor in that honesty. He’s got a great sense of character. And our theme is misfits this year, and I think that’s something that he often taps into, finding these characters that are a little bit lost and a little bit unusual.

I’ve just always enjoyed his writing. There’s a musicality to it without being too over-poetic or false. He understands the way people really talk, and he finds their musicality in their dialogue.

I think when most people think of dialogue, they think of the showy stuff, like a Sorkin or Tarantino or Mamet, where it’s stylized, whereas Lonergan’s all about naturalism.

Right, it’s not crafted or mannered. I also think he hits upon really important issues that face everyday people. And the thing I love most about "Lobby Hero" is it’s four relatively young people who all have to make big moral decisions – what is right or wrong. Sometimes at the drop of a hat, you have to just own up to who you’re going to be when you grow up, what are you going to stand for.

And that idea that the right choice can still involve people getting hurt, that it’s not always clean.

Right, it’s always mucky.

What was it about this particular show that really drew you to it?

I read about it years ago when it first opened in New York. I think at that point, I knew "This Is Our Youth" and really loved that, and I forget if "You Can Count On Me" had opened yet. But I saw it in 2001 Off-Broadway and just fell in love with it. I just so appreciated his writing. He’s very clever in how he just captures everyday people in everyday circumstances that suddenly turn, that you’re just living your life step by step and suddenly something slaps you in the face and you’re forced to meet it head-on and make a decision. What is the right thing to do?

I like that. I love issue plays. I’ve always been attracted to Arthur Miller; "All My Sons" is one of my favorite plays. I think it’s important that we always ask ourselves who do we want to be. What is ethical? What is honorable? I love the title "Lobby Hero" because I think we all have this burning desire to be heroes in our own lives, and we’re always looking for role models too.

In "Lobby Hero," two of the characters, Jeff and Dawn, both have role models in Bill and William. They’re both flawed people – as we all are – and that’s part of the story, them learning that their role models have some flaws, and they have to own up to, well, if I can’t be like them, who will I be like? How do I make my own decisions and learn from others’ mistakes?

How do you, as the director, try to help balance the tone of a show like this and make sure it is as natural as it can be?

It starts with casting, finding the right people who have a real understanding for the language. But also making sure you’re rooted in who you are at a given moment and what you want. I think it’s tough in theater because you do have to lift things enough to fill a bigger space than your own little living room or your lobby.

You still have to act to the back of the hall.

Yes. But you do want to start with that honest, rooted, just talking to each other conversation. And you have to have smart actors who understand rhythms and which words need to be lifted and how to read punctuation.

There’s a lot in this play of not just talking at the same time, but jumping on the last person’s thought. And Lonergan writes so beautifully where he’ll even tell you what word you’re overlapping with. He gives you lots of great clues. He’s really wonderful in what he italicizes, what he gives exclamation points and elipses and dashes, because he does have those everyday rhythms. And you need actors who recognize the good writing and the good punctuation, and honor it.

So we’ll often talk about that, the difference "long pause" as opposed to "pause" as opposed to "silence." That’s all a part of his rhythms and the musicality of his dialogue, getting those moments of regrouping. Because we often do that; we can’t find our next thought or there’s tension in the room and we don’t know how to fill it.

Conversation is messy.

Yes, exactly!

My dad liked "The West Wing," but he’d always complain, "People don’t talk that way!" Everyone always had the perfect thing to say at the perfect time. Lonergan is the opposite; there’s spaces for thinking and awkwardness.

Even some of his lines are like, "So … but … did you," and you have to find the honesty of that fumbling and trying to get your thoughts before you speak or as you speak.

The biggest thing we keep coming back to in rehearsal is listening to each other, because that’s critical – that you keep sending the energy back and forth, not premeditated "I’m about to say this line" or thinking about what you’re going to say. I do think some people confuse acting with memorizing. It’s so much bigger and more important than that. If it’s just about the words, that’s only in your brain. You’ve got to be living them, fully embracing anything you’re saying. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.