REVIEW: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero”
Whether by direction or habit, Michael Cera (“This Is Our Youth”, “Superbad”) performs this play in profile, most often looking stage right, or else in three-quarters cheat, facing upstage. “Phantom” aside, I cannot recall a performance where I saw so little of the lead character’s face, which is especially remarkable given that he does not leave the stage for the entirety of the play.
As Jeff, a 27 year old down-on-his-luck “security specialist” who mans the front desk of a Manhattan apartment building for the nightly graveyard shift, Mr. Cera does what he does best: playing a lovable, low-confidence schlub. And that is what makes his casting no mistake, and, perhaps, masterful. Lanky, awkward, wearing a puffy blue uniform shirt way too big at the collar, and often hunched over or grabbing his left arm, Mr. Cera offers a decidedly underwhelming and notably understated stage presence. Like Jeff, he can be invisible, an outsider spectator who responds to life instead of initiating, always aiming to please whomever he is with.
Over the course of this funny, simple, and engaging play, which takes place in the dead of night in the winter of 1999, Jeff is visited by his morally didactic boss, William (Brian Tyree Henry, “The Book of Mormon”), and a pair of police officers on patrol: the hot-headed, pop-collared Bill (Chris Evans, “Captain America”, in his Broadway debut), and the newbie “lady cop” Dawn (Bel Powley, “Arcadia”). Foiled romantic overtures and a murder investigation too close to home present each of the characters with intriguing moral dilemmas that pose difficult confrontations between espoused beliefs and contextual choices.
The by-the-book William, who is African American, is called to serve as a false alibi for his brother, who has been accused of murder. Meanwhile Bill, a thick mustachioed and even thicker accented, almost-unrecognizable Chris Evans, makes nightly “social visits” to a woman in 22J, while leading on and later threatening his partner, Dawn, a rookie out to prove herself who has already overacted once with her baton and faces the City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board.
For his part, the inquisitive Jeff finds himself intertwined in everyone else’s situations, while also trying to build a new life following an unlucky dismissal from the U.S. Navy, a burnt out relationship with a prostitute, and the settling of some gambling debt to a loan shark. On a well-designed though sometimes-unnecessarily rotating set by David Rockwell (who also led the renovation of the Helen Hayes Theatre), Jeff also makes many rotations as his allegiances compete and he tries his best to do the right thing.
Mr. Lonergan, best known on stage for his 1996 play “This Is Our Youth” and on film for penning “Analyze This” and “Gangs of New York” and both writing and directing “Manchester by the Sea”, shows, once more, a keen ability to sketch characters of great humanity and depth, smoothly wresting unexpected comedy in unlikely places. The drama can feel small, like the lobby of an apartment building, but several pointed passages of the play underscore larger, systemic problems like workplace sexual harassment and racial bias in criminal justice. These underlined conversations serve to elevate what might otherwise be a wan procedural. Originally commissioned and premiered by Playwrights Horizons in 2001, these larger themes are also newly resonant in 2018, not because Mr. Lonergan is particularly prophetic, but more so because of how little has changed.
“Lobby Hero”, which features a wildly anti-climactic ending, is by no means his finest effort, but there are enough successful moments to keep the play moving, even if it could be aided by a grander context or stronger through line. But first, I’ll settle for Mr. Cera cheating-out just a bit more.
Bottom Line: “Lobby Hero” is a funny, simple, and engaging play that follows the morally fraught actions of a quartet of uniformed personalities: two security guards and two police officers. Despite an anti-climactic ending, Michael Cera and Chris Evans give excellent performances and the play, touching on issues like workplace sexual harassment and racial bias in criminal justice, is eminently entertaining.
Second Stage Theater
The Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: March 26, 2018
Final Performance: May 13, 2018