Review: ‘Lobby Hero’ — No Heroes Here, Just Human Beings
Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, March 29, 2018
First, let me report that the just renovated new Broadway home of Second Stage Theater, the Helen Hayes, is just grand. Intimate and grand, which is a hard act to master. And the contrast between the plush crushed velvet seats in the audience and the nondescript apartment building lobby on stage is also grand. Designer David Rockwell has created the Platonic ideal of a New York City lobby—dreary, impersonal, and tired. We’ve all been there, many of us live there. And playwright Kenneth Lonergan (This is Our Youth, the film Manchester by the Sea) has created four characters we all recognize: arrogant cop, sad-sack security guard, rookie, zealous boss. Thanks to Lonergan’s marvelous writing and Trip Cullman’s spot-on direction, those four types are anything but. They are fully, painfully human.
Just who is the titular character in this near-perfect revival? Is it it Bill, played by Chris Evans (Captain America himself) the savvy and oh-so-morally compromised cop? Is it Jeff, the building security guard, played by Michael Cera, a sad sack slacker who can’t stop talking? Is it rookie cop Dawn (Bel Powley), who hero worships her handsome partner? Or is it Jeff’s boss, William (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), a by-the-book stickler who is facing a mess of a moral dilemma?
Actually, they are all facing dilemmas. Dawn, still in her probationary period, has maimed a man who was drunk and seemingly attacking her. She has also found out some rather unappealing things about her super-cop (yes, they call him that, or so he says) partner. William’s brother has been arrested for a violent crime and wants William to be his alibi. And Jeff…well, Jeff is a 27-year-old who has been kicked out of the navy for smoking weed and is just trying to figure out how to be an adult—and how to get Dawn’s attention.
They are all trying to unravel the difficult positions they find themselves in. Except maybe for Bill, who is just trying to get away with what he can get away with. Wearing a mustache that screams cop! and a brush cut so perfect it deserves its own mention in the program, Evans makes a terrific Broadway debut. His confident swagger could give lessons to roosters. While Bill says he’s doing just fine, Evans manages to hint at the insecurities and equivocations that keep a compromised clock like Bill ticking.
The uniform looks like a costume on Powley, who pushes a bit too hard on the outer-borough accent and the deer-in-the-headlights newbie pose. She begins to unwind as the events unravel, but at times she feels like she’s following her character’s stage directions (cross arms, put hands on hips, roll eyes) instead of living them.
William wears his uniform proudly, as a man who has managed to live by a personal moral compass…until now. His is the most challenging dilemma: provide a false alibi for a brother who has failed to follow William’s strict moral code, or let him fall into a system that William knows will not help him. The play is a lesson in how to incorporate an intensely relevant issue like workplace sexual harassment and institutional racism without it ever, for a moment, feeling shoehorned in. These are not political issues, they are personal problems, that have no simple solutions.
And then there’s Michael Cera, who was born to speak Lonergan’s language. Jeff is trying to build a life, trying to figure out how to be a man, trying to do the right thing—and also trying to get a date with Dawn (or at least figure out her first name). He can’t stop talking, and when he does talk he invariably says too much, or says the wrong thing. He makes you cringe, and makes you want to tell him to shut up, and makes you care. And when he says, to Dawn, who is finally paying him some attention, “Sometimes I feel like I was worn out the minute I was born,” he almost makes you cry.
The second act goes on too long, with too many forced parallel scenes, and the ending just arrives without much of a reason. But these are small cavils. When characters are this well drawn, this intensely human, and the performances are this well crafted, it’s worth every minute you spend in the company of these wonderful less-than-heroes.
Lobby Hero presented by Second Stage Theater at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, through May 13, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with 1 intermission. Written by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Trip Cullman; scenic design by David Rockell; costume design by Paloma Young; lighting design by Japhy Weideman; sound design by Darron L. West. Cast: Michael Cera, Chris Evans, Bel Powley, and Brian Tyree Henry.
Cover: (l. to r.) Chris Evans and Michael Cera in ‘Lobby Hero;’ photo: Joan Marcus.