(l to r) Chris Evans, Bel Powley, Michael Cera and Brian Tyree Henry in ‘Lobby Hero.’ (Photo: Mark Seliger)
By Samuel L. Leiter
With awards eligibility for the 2017-2018 season ending in about three weeks, the sad news is how few original plays and musicals appeared on Broadway this season, and how little Tony competition there will be in these categories. The happy news is in the lineup of top-notch revivals, one of which is Trip Cullman’s staging of Kenneth Lonergan’s (Manchester by the Sea, This Is Our Youth) Lobby Hero.
This four-character dramedy, inaugurating Second Stage Theater’s tenure at the beautifully renovated Hayes Theater, is as bitingly relevant and funny as when it premiered Off-Broadway in 2001 at Playwrights Horizons.
Lonergan’s gift for honest character depiction, colorfully realistic dialogue, suspenseful situations, dramatic conflict, and carefully honed ethical dilemmas gives Lobby Hero the feel of an old-fashioned, well-crafted drama, with few self-consciously artsy or intellectual devices. In no time at all, you find his expository talent tugging you deeply into his people and events.
The action transpires mainly in a sparsely furnished lobby—security desk, chair, settee—of a New York City, high-rise apartment building, where a security guard named Jeff (Michael Cera, Arrested Development, This Is Our Youth) requires visitors to sign in.
Designer David Rockwell provides a revolving platform to shift our perspective from the lobby to the street outside, while sometimes also altering the angle of the lobby itself. A central feature is an elevator with an overhead digital display whose changing floor numbers practically make it a fifth character in the action.
Jeff, 27-years-old, a verbally amusing but motivation-deprived slacker/bachelor on the verge of finally moving out of the room he rents at his brother’s home, is stuck on his building’s graveyard shift.
His African-American security guard boss is William (Bryan Tyree Henry), to whom the feckless Jeff is grateful for the job, even though William, picking on him for things like letting people in without their signing the visitors’ book, is likely to lecture him endlessly on duty and responsibility. William will soon find his own rectitude put to the test.
The other two characters are cops, Bill (Chris Evans, Fantastic Four, in his Broadway debut), a tough, boastful, decorated veteran with his eye on a gold badge, and Dawn (Bel Powley), an insecure rookie both in thrall to her partner (they’ve had sex) and fearful of him (she thinks his next attempt will constitute rape). The relationship of these upholders of law and order also involves issues of duty and responsibility, not least of which is the loyalty police officers are expected to demonstrate toward even their less-than-upstanding colleagues.
Lonergan weaves around this quartet a web of irony involving lies, hypocrisy, betrayal, and redemption with a beautifully balanced plot filled with parallel moral issues. William, claiming anger at the unfair criminal justice system, ponders abandoning his code of honesty by using a false alibi to protect his brother, charged with a horrendous crime. Jeff, attracted to Dawn (which sparks a romantic subplot), struggles about revealing to her his knowledge of Bill’s dilemma.
We’re further engaged by what course of action will be taken by Dawn, under investigation for using excessive force; she needs Bill’s support yet must contend with his predatory behavior and on-duty derelictions. And we wait to learn if the bullying, rule-breaking Bill, who strains Dawn’s loyalty by regularly visiting a prostitute on the 22nd floor (your eyes will be glued to that elevator floor number), will reap what he hath sown.
Lobby Hero’s weakest scene is its last, which, more or less, resolves the Jeff-Dawn situation unconvincingly. Until then, though, the two hour and 15-minute play is consistently on the mark.
A first-rate ensemble brings each character to stageworthy life. Cera, continually adjusting his belt as if to hold on to his integrity, is much the same as he’s always been but he’s perfectly cast as the ineffectual nerd determined to impress the rookie female patrolwoman but still managing to screw things up. Evans, best known as Captain America but sounding here like an authentic “Nu Yawk” cop, impresses strongly as the seemingly reasonable, deceptively charming menace embodied by so many men in blue.
Henry captures each side of William’s moral muddle with singular sincerity, although he sometimes speaks so fast his words get swallowed. And while the diminutive Powley, an English actress, offers a quality facsimile of an insecure young officer, her working-class accent seems more learned than organic.
Lobby Hero has never been on Broadway before but its awards status as a revival rather than a new play seems likely. Wherever it falls, it adds another bright light to the still glowing Broadway season.
Helen Hayes Theater
240 W. 44th Street, NYC
Through May 13
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).