Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 26, 2018
Lobby Hero 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. Dialect Coach Kate Wilson. Cast: Michael Cera, Chris Evans, Brian Tyree Henry, and Bel Powley.
Jeff and Dawn are two of the four uniformed characters whose paths cross in this play that borrows the trappings of romantic comedy to get at much deeper issues of ethics, morality, loyalty, and the abuse of power. Concerns about all of these suffuse our current social and political climate, which only serves to enhance our appreciation of the playwright's skill in creating credibly complicated situations and individuals who do not necessarily fit the assumptions we might make about them.
Michael Cera enacts the role of Jeff with a fine-tuned sense of clumsy sincerity. It is a characterization Cera has pretty much perfected through several films and plays, including the 2014 revival of Lonergan's This Is Our Youth. In it, he played a rudderless slacker whom you could easily see as a younger version of Jeff. Here, working as a security guard is only the first step in Jeff's effort to stand on his own two feet, even if he hasn't quite given up the notion that luck is at least as important.
Jeff is very much attracted to Dawn (Bel Powley), a recent graduate of the Police Academy and just a few months into her probationary period on the force. In Ms. Powley's hands, Dawn is a wondrous mix of fear, bravado, naiveté, and intelligence. When we first meet her, she is in timid thrall to her veteran partner Bill (Chris Evans), a more stereotypic compilation of superficial charm, arrogance, and bullying that he uses to control others. But keep an eye on Dawn, because she is nobody's fool.
The fourth character is Jeff's supervisor, William, played with a sense of both wary and weary watchfulness by Brian Tyree Henry. As a black man who has risen quickly in the ranks of the security firm, he is ever mindful of the importance of being seen as completely reliable and trustworthy, and he runs things by the book. The first time we see him with Jeff, he begins by berating the guard over the sloppiness of the front desk where he sits out the night, and warns against ever falling asleep on the job.
Jeff can be annoying to be around. He veers at times between flattery and making inappropriately personal comments. Then when he sees a negative reaction, he defuses things with an "I'm just kidding." Yet, he does show a certain affability, and people tend to like him. There is also something about the quietness of a Manhattan lobby (nicely captured in David Rockwell's simple set design) late at night that causes people to drop their defenses. For all his goofiness, Jeff is the kind of casual acquaintance folks tend to open up to, the way they will unload their problems to a bartender with an unspoken expectation of confidentiality.
The core of the play's plot has to do with a problem that William is wrestling with. His brother has been arrested in connection with an attempted theft of drugs at a hospital, during which a nurse was killed. The brother wants William to provide an alibi for the night in question, and William does not know what to do. On the one hand, he does not want to be dragged into the situation or to lie for his brother. On the other hand, he is well aware of how the justice system has continually failed the black community. All of this comes out in a series of brief conversations, in which William shares his struggle with Jeff.
Meanwhile, we also learn about Dawn and her married partner Bill. Dawn has hero-worshipped Bill, and, indeed, has fallen in love with him since he has taken her under his wing and has offered to intervene on her behalf in a disciplinary matter. Bill has an air of cocksure authority and he is a ruggedly handsome, both characteristics Dawn finds very appealing. That is until she learns of his visits to Jeff's building to meet up with a certain woman in Apartment 22J and begins to reconsider her starry-eyed admiration. It is while cooling her heels waiting for Bill in the lobby that Dawn engages in conversations with Jeff. Through these late night talks, they develop a tentative friendship that offers the possibility of growing into something more over time.
Once the relationships and situations are established, the playwright allows the characters to take over, and the plot develops a number of complications as everyone's purported beliefs and values are put to the test. Turns out, just like in real life, deciding the right thing to do is not so easy, with consequences that bear out regardless. While the terminology of "#MeToo" and "Black Lives Matter" were not in existence when Lobby Hero was first produced a decade-and-a-half ago, the problems that Dawn and William need to grapple with, and that Jeff and Bill are necessarily a part of, draw a straight line from then to now. The cast and director Trip Cullman understand this completely, so that it is not the least surprising that the audience lets out a mighty round of applause when Dawn determines to ignore all of the traps that others have laid before her and becomes the hero of her own life, as a cop and as a woman.