Is there anything more timeless than the lobby of an average doorman building? It’s a scuffed, eclectic oasis of permanence in a city that never sleeps — though its doormen sometimes do, dreaming their own big dreams. Jeff is the principal dreamer in Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, a substantial and mostly satisfying revival of which opens today, featuring the gloriously awkward Michael Cera as the titular doorman (sorry, “security officer”). But the soul of this production, Hero’s Broadway debut 17 years after it first ran off Broadway, belongs to Jeff’s self-help-peddling African-American “captain” and would-be mentor, William, infused by Brian Tyree Henry (of FX’s Atlanta) with a rawness and flow that completely recenters the morality play.
Lonergan’s story and dialogue are as evergreen as his lobby — evocatively rendered by David Rockwell as a slightly seedy Art Deco cube rotating through a street-lit night (in contrast to its home, the freshly renovated Hayes Theater). Jeff and William confide warily in each other — the former about his abject failure to live up to his Navy-hero father, the latter about the strict moral code that saved him from the streets. A visit from two cops, philanderer Bill (Chris Evans doing his cocky best) and his wide-eyed female partner Dawn (Brit ingenue Bel Powley) gets complicated when it emerges that William’s brother is a murder suspect, Dawn just maimed a drunk, and Bill is an asshole. Secrets are shared and betrayed, liars unmasked, ambitions born and shattered — all in one oversized vestibule.
So much has changed since the debut of Lonergan’s third legit drama. The World Trade Center towers fell a week after the show closed at the John Houseman Theater, itself demolished in 2005. Lonergan went from hot young playwright to struggling filmmaker (Margaret) to esteemed director and Oscar-winning screenwriter (Manchester by the Sea). And the twin preoccupations of Lobby Hero, toxic masculinity and a broken justice system, have breached the surface of mass consciousness in the wake of twin electoral surprises — the first black president followed by the most toxic white male you could think of.
The play seems to have spent the last 17 years waiting for the right cast, and this time it gets halfway there. Lonergan’s first slacker muse, Mark Ruffalo, starred in the premiere of This Is Our Youth, his first and fiercest play, and was scheduled to perform in the first Lobby Hero until he backed out — a missed opportunity for all but especially for the work, which critics damned with faint praise about its “unfulfilled” promise. (People keep telling Jeff, too, that he’s got “a lot of potential.”)
Lonergan writes with warmth, wit and spontaneity, but Lobby Hero is one of his more schematic pieces, a complex machine of mixed motivations and triangulated outcomes. Unlike the best of Mamet or Pinter, it can’t get by on clever delivery; its naturalism requires transcendent acting. Cera, who starred in a 2014 Broadway revival of This Is Our Youth, has settled confidently into the groove of un-confidence where most of Lonergan’s heroes dwell, a stoner borderland where extreme torpor meets unstoppable blather. Fists shooting into baggy pockets, torso canted stiffly forward as though braced against the stiff headwinds of fate, Cera looks profoundly uncomfortable, which makes him a perfect fit. Always asking the wrong questions, which turn out to be the right questions, Jeff plays catalyst to everyone but himself. “Sometimes I feel like I was worn out the minute I was born,” he says, and we believe it.
The people with the real badges turn out to be more cartoonish than the guards — an irony that, even if intended by Lonergan, is overblown by Evans and Powley, who seem to be in a different play. Obvious financial incentives aside, the logic behind plopping Evans, the erstwhile Captain America, into this particular Broadway debut is evident from one of his first lines. His uniform as snug on him as Jeff’s is bunched and baggy, his mustache and flattop a masterpiece of butch, Bill humblebrags about the precinct boys’ making him a T-shirt to celebrate his last commendation: “My head on a picture of Superman — underneath it says ‘Super Bill.’”
You could see how Trip Cullman — who directs with great timing and efficiency — might have intended to play the audience the same way Bill, the alleged supercop, plays his female partner. Dawn, whom Powley gives a Minnie Mouse–from-da-Bronx squawk you could probably hear next door over the belting of Frozen, sees Bill as an Übermensch of protection and service. Never mind that he is married, has already seduced Dawn, and is visiting Jeff’s building to see a prostitute. Eventually the scales are meant to fall from her eyes — and ours – as she turns to Jeff, who is allergic to groups of men “screaming and impressing each other with what a bunch of morons they are.”
The problem is that Evans trips over his own studious character work. Contrary to expectations, or perhaps because of them, Broadway’s Hollywood ringers tend to work too hard on technique. Evans proves to be a master caricaturist — head swiveling and thrusting like the cock of his beat, a police wagon’s worth of bullshit rationalizations jammed into his six-pack. Later on, he turns out to be maybe not the worst human being in the world. But there is no superman veneer to start with. When Dawn squawks, “I gotta be the worst judge of character in the history of the fuckin’ Earth,” Jeff doesn’t contradict her, and neither would you. Bill’s bullshit is so transparent birds would fly straight into it.
It’s also possible that Bill’s brand of masculinity has become overexposed. Jeff’s beta-male dilemma — can one be confident without becoming “a total scumbag” — was endlessly explored by the likes of Neil LaBute, until #MeToo changed the conversation (and took LaBute with it). So it might be more than Brian Tyree Henry’s superb portrayal of William that turns Lobby Hero mostly into the story of his own “interesting dilemma” — a phrase he delivers, by the way, with layers of sarcasm, rage, and anguish you could spend days unpeeling. William must choose between corroborating his brother’s false alibi and sticking to his principles while his flesh and blood falls prey to a grossly flawed court system.
Henry originated the role of the General in The Book of Mormon and knows his way around a stage, but he starts the play off a little low, as if addressing Atlanta’s cable audience instead of a theater. Yet even at the cost of a couple of swallowed lines, his moral exhaustion feels disconcertingly natural among the lobby’s potted plants and the police officers’ potted accents. And as Lonergan’s web of dilemmas grows more interesting, Henry’s performance blossoms, riding an arc of injustice that seems to bend permanently away from a security guard with big plans and the wrong color of skin. It’s powerful to watch him simmer and boil and wither, while Cera plays his downtrodden but still privileged foil. The rest of the show: It’s got a lot of potential.
Lobby Hero is the first production at the restored Hayes Theater (formerly known as the Helen Hayes Theatre).