“Lobby Hero,” which presents a quartet of characters (two security guards and two cops) in the lobby of a high rise apartment building in Manhattan, is more than just the modest comedy it initially seems to be. It is less, though, than what we were promised.
When Second Stage announced it had bought itself a Broadway home, the Helen Hayes, the non-profit theater company declared it would use it to present new American plays by living American playwrights. For the inaugural production at the newly renovated Hayes, however, Second Stage has chosen to revive “Lobby Hero,” an old American play (which debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2001), by Kenneth Lonergan, a playwright (“This Is Our Youth”) whose greatest successes have been in Hollywood: He wrote and directed the Oscar-winning “Manchester by the Sea.”
That “Lobby Hero” also co star Chris Evans (“Captain America”), in his Broadway debut, and Michael Cera (“Juno,” “Arrested Development”) make the Hollywood connections feel more than an accident. It follows the recent formula for mounting a straight play on Broadway: Get screen stars. That usually doesn’t mean the playwright too.
Still, if with its choice of “Lobby Hero,” Second Stage does not yet offer any kind of breakthrough for diverse voices on Broadway, director Trip Cullman delivers an effective production of a play that winds up offering some food for thought.
Cera portrays Jeff, a sarcastic, slacker night security guard who was thrown out of the Navy for smoking pot, much to the disgust of his Navy veteran father. He has had some bad luck in life – which seems indistinguishable from bad choices (“it was bad luck that I got caught.”) But he feels that he is now getting his life back together, thanks to this job, which he’s had for nine months. He is grateful to his boss, William (Brian Tyree Henry), who is strait-laced and demanding but believes Jeff “has potential.” Still, William wishes Jeff wouldn’t turn everything into a joke. After one wisecrack too many:
WILLIAM Keep laughing, Jeff. ‘Cause the joker laughs last. And the joker’s gonna laugh last at you.
JEFF What do you mean, like the Joker from Batman?
WILLIAM N o —
JEFF What the fuck are you talking about?
WILLIAM I just mean—Like,you know,like the generic
joker. Like the laughing figure of Fate, or whatever you want to call it.
JEFF: Oh, sure, that joker.Everyone’s terrified of him.
WILLIAM Go ahead and laugh,Jeff.The joker laughs last.
Jeff himself longs “to do something. To help somebody. Or do something. Contribute. I don’t know. Work with kids. Or—I mean, I don’t particularly like kids, but you know what I mean.”
Evans is Bill, an experienced police officer, who brings his new partner Dawn (Bel Powley), on the job just three months, to the apartment building, and has her wait in the lobby while he visits a friend on the 22nd floor. Dawn is shaken up from an encounter earlier in the day, when she stopped a menacing man engaged in a street fight by hitting him with her nightstick. Bill reassures her that he’ll back her up and she won’t get in trouble.
Jeff admits to William that he fantasizes about “all these lady cops–Like they have me handcuffed to a chair, and I’m naked, and they’re walking around in nothing but their hats and gun belts …” When he talks to Dawn, it’s clearly in the hopes that they might date.
What at first seems like a casual collection of character studies and smart, funny dialogue becomes more pointed, when William tells Jeff that his ne’er-do-well brother may have been involved in the murder of a nurse, and is asking him to create a fake alibi for him. Normally, William would reject such unethical behavior out of hand, but he met his brother’s public defender who was thoroughly incompetent. And then there’s the matter of race: “There’s a lot of people in jail who don’t belong there, a lot of black people in jail who don’t belong there, and a lot of cops and prosecutors and what have you who would just as soon throw somebody in jail as nobody,” says William, who is black.
At the same time, there are revelations involving Dawn and Bill as well. Dawn, who obviously from the get-go has a crush on Bill, becomes aware that his visit upstairs is for a quickie with a Mrs. Heinvald.
Each of the characters faces a moral quandary. When is it right to betray your principles to support a friend? When is it acceptable to betray a friend to support your principles? How mixed can your motives be? Not all four characters struggle with these questions. Bill doesn’t seem to — he does what he feels like doing, following a corrupt cop code — which makes him the least interesting of the characters. Chris Evans plays a New York cop with the swagger we would expect; it’s not his fault the part is one-note. Bel Powley is also challenged to make Dawn more than a “little girl wearin’ a police uniform,” which is how Bill sees her. But Cera’s man-child persona serves him well in a character trying to grow up, and Brian Tyree Henry makes William’s moral uprightness and his dilemma feel palpable
David Rockwell, who oversaw the Hayes renovation, also designed the set for “Lobby Hero,” which is the suggestion of a lobby (a desk, a chair, an elevator). The set occasionally revolves, especially when the characters step outside to speak privately. It’s as if to say: We’re offering you a variety of perspectives.
Next up at the Helen Hayes (in June) — “Straight White Men,” also not a new play (I saw it and loved it, at the Public Theater in 2014) but its author Young Jean Lee will be the first Asian-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway.
Written by Kenneth Lonergan; Directed by Trip Cullman
Scenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Paloma Young, lighting design by Japhy Weideman, sound design by Darron L West
Cast: Michael Cera, Chris Evans, Bel Powley, Brian Tyree Henry.
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $99.00 – $169.00
“Lobby Hero” is scheduled to run through May 13, 2018.