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Theatre in Review: Lobby Hero (Second Stage/Hayes Theatre)

Brian Tyree Henry, Bel Powley, Michael Cera, Chris Evans. Photo: Joan Marcus

With its underachieving characters, most of whom have a tendency to run off at the mouth, Lobby Hero might be classified by some as a slacker play, not unlike This is Our Youth, playwright Kenneth Lonergan's previous work. Indeed, part of the pleasure of this comedy is its characters' salty, funny, frequently insolent way with words. But all this conversation is merely a clever playwright's sleight of hand: Note how effortlessly he ensnares his four-person cast in a net of interwoven ethical dilemmas; they may have mundane jobs, but they have big-time problems, each of which could change the course of his or her life. In Trip Cullman's first-class revival, their entanglements become the stuff of acutely observed comedy and more than a little suspense.

All four cast members are ideally suited to their roles. Michael Cera is Jeff, who is pushing thirty with nothing to show for it. Perennially wounded by his father's disapproval, he joined the Navy, only to be bounced out on a minor marijuana-possession charge. Trying to raise a stake, he gambled away $5,000. (That he thinks these setbacks are merely the result of bad luck tells you how much growing up is still before him. He lives with his brother -- whom he is paying back in small installments for a life-saving loan -- and toils at night as a security guard in a Manhattan high-rise. He'd love to meet a girl, but, with all that baggage, the prospect is dim.

Jeff also must deal with the constant hectoring of William, his supervisor, who stops by the building on his nightly rounds, complaining about his employees' performance -- Jeff is hardly exempt -- and detailing his self-improvement plans, which may involve starting his own security service. Brian Tyree Henry has exactly the right badgering tone as William, who can't stop lecturing Jeff, even for a minute: "You're probably intended to be just one of those guys who drifts through life doing one job or another, no plan, no specific intentions of any kind. And one day you're gonna wake up in a lobby just like this one, except everybody's gonna be calling you 'Pops'." Cera and Henry play together so naturally, it's easy to believe that William and Jeff are engaging in the latest edition of a long-running argument.

Also, on hand are Bill and Dawn, cops on the local beat. Bill is a strutting, self-adoring piece of beefcake who is well-connected back at the precinct house and has set his sights on a detective's badge. Chris Evans may be best-known for his on-screen forays as Captain America, but he shows solid stage chops as Bill, bragging about his accomplishments and friends in high places and exhibiting considerable menace when the occasion warrants. "You want me to be honest? That's as honest as I get," he says, earnestly, having delivered a speech about his marriage -- he is a serial adulterer -- that is one hundred percent hogwash. Dawn is a rookie -- and a woman fighting for a foothold in what is traditionally a man's profession -- who falls for every flattering line that Bill throws her way. (He has already gotten her into bed once, and he has plans for a reprise, no matter how she feels about it.) In addition to a convincing New York accent, Bel Powley captures Dawn's initial hero-worship of, and growing disaffection, turning into impotent fury, for Bill.

Meanwhile, Jeff has fallen hard for Dawn, despite William's warnings that "you're just an imitation cop and she's a real cop. And if you get involved with some lady policewoman it is a sure bet you're gonna end up feeling outranked and outclassed." Jeff, undeterred, replies, "I always feel that way. My last girlfriend was a tollbooth collector, and she intimidated the shit out of me." Alone with Dawn, and trying to make conversation, he blurts out, "I know I'm blathering. I'm just completely in love with you -- can I just say that?"

The real trouble begins when William's ne'er-do-well brother is sought by the police for breaking and entering into a hospital with two accomplices, and for raping and savagely killing a night nurse. The other two guys were arrested, and the family is putting pressure on William to give his brother an alibi. He makes the mistake of confiding his dilemma to Jeff, who also indiscreetly warns Dawn that Bill's nightly stopover at the apartment building involves a visit to the lady he is sexually servicing. Dawn is enraged, especially when she realizes that Bill has her on the hook: In one of her first on-the-job incidents, she got overenthusiastic about beating a suspect, landing him in jail. To keep her job -- or, at the very least, to escape severe censure -- she needs Bill's favorable testimony, which will require that she be "nice" to him. Further complicating matters, Bill volunteers to vouch for William's dodgy alibi with the detectives on his brother's case.

Before you know it, everybody is compromised, except, perhaps, Jeff who, as it happens, can't stop telling the truth, even if he has nothing to lose besides his job and the woman he so improbably loves. As the stakes get higher and the confrontations gets funnier and more tense, Lobby Hero turns on the irony that Jeff, the biggest loser in the crowd, may have the power -- and the compulsive honesty -- to bring the other three down.

Cullman lets the conflict arise out of the characters' everyday conversation, catching us off-guard with his clever plotting. He also has plenty to say about the way we live: William, who is black, knows that his brother's odds in the legal system are a hundred to one. "You hear about guys who go to jail because their lawyer was asleep in court, or because they forgot to file some deposition or something because they have two hundred cases apiece and about five minutes for each one." Jeff upsets William by inquiring about the dead nurse's race, adding, "If she's white there's probably gonna be a big stink about it in the papers, and if she's black they probably won't play it up as much" -- a line that was greeted at the performance I attended with a stunned, uncomfortable silence.

This time around, however, Lobby Hero is a much funnier play than it was in its original production. Jeff offers to help William with his brother, saying, "Maybe I could give you some special insight into the workings of the fuck-up mind." Bill, flirting shamelessly with Dawn by accusing her of flirting with him, says, "Any more of this and I'm gonna sue your ass for sexual harassment." (Her deadpan response -- "Yeah, right, I think it's a little late for that" -- is one of the rare times Bill is at a loss for words.) Then again, Dawn is a whiz at killing conversations. William, trying again to get her attention, says, "Hey, how come male cops are so big and fat and female cops are so young and beautiful?" Dawn replies, "Yeah, how come doormen never know when to shut up?"

Cullman's design team has come up with a highly attractive and flexible production. David Rockwell's set boils down the lobby to a few furnishings, a doorway, and an elevator; it is placed on a turntable that provides various angles from which to view the action. (Keep an eye on the floor indicator over the elevator door, which signals when Bill is about to make an unwelcome entrance.) Rockwell's curved surround, the color of rusting steel, is backlit to great effect by Japhy Weideman, who also makes good use of sidelighting to "float" the set onstage. The combination of scenery and lighting creates an alluring dream vision of New York at night. You'd think that a play featuring four characters in uniform would require no thought at all, but Paloma Young probes further: Note how Bill has primped his uniform to show off his muscular build. Darron L. West's sound design fills the air with sounds of the city at night.

Lobby Hero is, of course, Second Stage's first Broadway foray in its new home, The Hayes, which has been handsomely renovated by a team that includes Rockwell. In addition to presenting new works, the company has always been dedicated to giving recent works another opportunity to be seen. They've done themselves proud by Lobby Hero, a play that, more and more, is looking like an American classic. In its acute writing and total professionalism, the production is well worth a visit. -- David Barbour

(10 April 2018)

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