Bill (Chris), one of New York's not-so-finest,
and Jeff (Michael Cera), a high-rise security guard, don't see eye-to-eye in
By Marc Miller
the theater. The Helen Hayes has been acquired by Second Stage, somehow lost
the Helen, and undergone a needed renovation. The Hayes, at 597 seats
Broadway’s smallest house, was always cozy, but also always musty. Now it has
plush burgundy seats, royal blue walls embroidered with classic figures, and
more legroom than some larger houses. It’s spiffy and well-proportioned, and
about all it lacks is a real lobby.
there’s one onstage, as its initial tenant is Lobby Hero, Kenneth
Lonergan’s 2001 comedy-drama, but mostly comedy. Lonergan, here as in This
Is Our Youth and Manchester By the Sea and several other works, is
focused on people who make bad decisions, and the consequences of those
decisions. The lobby of the title, of a Manhattan apartment building, was
designed by David Rockwell, and it’s one of the least impressive sets of the
Broadway season, a sparse space that pointlessly rotates during scene changes.
But the four people who inhabit it—four and only four, as Lobby Hero
takes place over the middle of several nights, when foot traffic in the lobby
is scant—deserve our attention. They’re spectacularly misguided, they embody
much of what’s wrong with American values, and above all, they’re funny.
among them is Jeff (Michael Cera), the security guard—what kind of apartment
house this is, or why it would need a security guard, Lonergan isn’t telling.
In his late 20s, quick with a joke and charming when he has to be, he’s
nevertheless a lost puppy dog of a guy. Dishonorably discharged from the Navy
after being busted for marijuana, he’s rootless, escaping the memory of a
strict and uncommunicative father, living uncomfortably with his brother in Queens,
and as awkward with women as he is horny. It’s lonely, undemanding work, and
about the only diversion he can look forward to is the occasional nighttime
(Brian Tyree Henry), his boss, black, officious, articulate, and conflicted. A
family man and play-by-the-rules sort of guy, he hired Jeff to help him get his
life restarted and has benevolent human impulses, but isn’t past deceit or
corruption when cornered. Which he is now, as his worthless brother has just
possibly, no probably, committed a terrible crime and asked him to help cover
it up. Here’s where Lonergan asks the evening’s key question, one we’d like to
ask a lot of government officials right now: Which is more important, honesty
or loyalty? William is leaning toward the latter, and may get some assistance
(Chris Evans), the handsome, egomaniac cop on Jeff’s beat. Married but a serial
adulterer, and a tough talker, he plays by the unwritten and impure NYPD rules,
where one protects one’s own, even if it means evasion or outright lying. Which
is why he’s buttering up and flirting with…
(Bel Powley), his neophyte partner, an insecure trainee and the object of
Jeff’s considerable sexual fantasies. She’s in trouble for having just beat up
a perp, and not indifferent to Bill’s overtures, until Jeff tells her Bill’s
been boffing a tenant upstairs.
The play's cast, from left, Brian Tyree Henry,
Bel Powley, Michael Cera and Chris Evan are a fine-tuned ensemble under the
direction of Trip Cullman.
you see, it’s a full plate. And Lonergan’s dialog, while it reads
straightforwardly on paper, often plays hilariously, because the relationships
among these four are so twisted yet true. These characters keep making
character feints we didn’t anticipate, but they feel logical when they happen.
They dodge or initiate confrontations when we least expect, up the sarcasm to
avoid revealing their true feelings, and turn on one another very quickly when
threatened. A lot of dialog overlaps, Trip Cullman’s direction varies the
rhythms naturally and effectively, and he gives the actors character-fitting
business. Just to watch Cera dig his hands in his pockets or scratch his back
sums up Jeff’s helplessness and aimlessness, and to watch Evans swagger and
turn on a dime from nice guy to holy terror captures Bill in a way just the
lines don’t. Movie stars, both of them, but these aren’t star turns. Henry’s a
superb William, though sound designer Darron L. West might turn his mic up a
bit, and Powley’s Dawn—she feels things deeply, articulates them inexpertly, and
is the closest thing onstage to a moral conscience—fairly screams
“blue-collar,” and “outer-borough.”
caveats: The play just ends, practically in midsentence and with much
unresolved, though maybe that’s Lonergan’s way of saying, Life is like that.
And there’s a certain condescension around the edges: These people are
blue-collar, his writing keeps reminding us, but he isn’t. (This was also
apparent in Manchester By the Sea.) But Lobby Hero remains a
funny, disturbing look at how some people, in whom we frequently recognize
ourselves, run away from the truth, comfort themselves with unreachable goals,
and cross over too quickly into moral compromise when faced with unpleasant
possibilities. It’s a full, entertaining evening of conventional theater. And it’s
happening in a beautifully refurbished house.
May 13, 2018
the Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., Manhattan.
tickets, visit Telecharge.com or phone (212) 239-6200.
time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission.