What pretty, plush new seats the Hayes Theater has. This compact Broadway house, the smallest on the Great White Way, has been renovated under its new owners Second Stage and reopened as a non-profit. Sadly, Lobby Hero, starring Chris “Captain America” Evans and Michael Cera and directed by Trip Cullman, does not blazingly usher in the new dawn.
This stilted and tonally bizarre adaptation of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 play is about Jeff (Cera), a security guard in a Manhattan apartment building, whose slacker demeanor and barely applied dedication to the job hides a creepy horniness when it comes to the opposite sex which I think is supposed to be charming.
His senior is the African-American William (Brian Tyree Henry), who finds Jeff’s dry wit and nonchalant defiance of simple instruction understandably grating. Henry’s performance is the most affecting and energetic, as he wittily smacks down Jeff’s impertinence before wrestling with the consequences of giving his brother an alibi following an appalling rape and murder of a woman.
How true we should be to ourselves, the nature of justice, and how morally compromised we are in the service of justice are the play’s not small concerns.
The play’s other characters are two police officers, Bill (Evans, impressively not looking like superhero-Chris-Evans) and Dawn (Bel Powley). Bill is an officer of the old school, which is to say likely-corrupt-school but who absolutely believes, or has made himself believe, that he is in the right about everything. He comes to the building to visit an apartment on the 22nd floor, presumably to have sex with its female occupant. Because he can.
Dawn is a rookie cop, and at first seems to simply hero worship Bill; but actually they’re having sex too. Jeff also wants Dawn, and creeps on her in such a way that we are supposed to find funny. It’s not, it’s skin-crawling— yet it’s written and played for laughs. Dawn wants to be taken seriously, is gas-lighted by her boss, then suddenly apparently wants to be loved, sporadically explodes Veruca Salt-style, then asserts herself and her professionalism.
How should Lobby Hero sound or look for it to make sense? This production feels lost between slacker farce and corruption drama. You’re not really sure how to feel about any of these four characters, except William—and even then we’re not clued in enough to the truth of his situation to know how skewed our sympathies should be. The play raises, then leaves floating, the racism William rightly fears within the justice system.
Cera plays Jeff best as a ruffled, lost young man – with a steely guile to be deployed against Bill – that you could root for if he wasn't so weird around Dawn. Life has dealt him an unlucky hand, and he needs the money from this job desperately for independence.
But Jeff also comes across as a drifting millennial, diffidently keeping his hands glued to his hips (which looks strange), and speaking so quietly that if you are not in the front rows the biggest impulse must be to bellow for him to speak up, especially when the focus of the play and his own moment of moral choice emerges.
Evans and Powley both suffer from “New Yoikk cop” accent-itis; that is Evans keeps stroking his bushy ‘stache, and being either smart, cocky, or menacing, or a puffed-up fool. Again, is he manipulative sociopath or self-important dunderhead? Evans plays him as both (better, chillingly, as the sociopath), diluting the character.
Dawn reminded me of Scrappy-Doo, Scooby’s nephew. Her character shifts are plain baffling, such as when she ruminates to Jeff that she will be raped after her shift by Bill, who is coercing her into having sex with him that so he backs her up in an assault incident she is under scrutiny for.
That’s a huge and terrible thing to reveal, or feel. But the line pops out, its consequence and impact go unexamined, and suddenly we’re back to Jeff trying to greasily wheedle his way into her good graces. Rape is a convenient plot adornment in Lobby Hero, and it should be more than that. Yes, Dawn gets a great last line, and you may cheer its delivery. But she deserves much more in the course of the play.
Who is the "lobby hero"? Lonergan presumably means Jeff whose occasional acts of heroism are for sure cute and emphatic, but he also seems as selfish, sexist, and self-interested as the more obviously heinous Bill. The actors don’t discern the shifts of their characters subtly enough for us to reconcile those jangling opposites. There are odd gaps during conversations. Are these stylistic? They bring a halting sense to what should be flowing exchanges.
The static nature of the characters’ encounters is signaled by one of the strangest sets on Broadway I've seen so far this season. A third of the stage on the left side goes completely unused, meaning if you are on the left-hand side of the theater you are always, apart from one moment towards the end, looking right to the rotating turntable that is set up – with standing desk, chairs and elevator doors – as the apartment building lobby.
The play is performed, for no discernible reason, on the right-hand side of the Hayes stage. If you are sitting on the left flank, your main bit of design company comes care of a large street lamp.
The segues between scenes, day, and night, take place with little rotations of this lobby. Although the mechanism doesn’t creak, your puzzled mind adds a creak to it. This turntable is set back itself on the stage, because the gap in between is supposed to be the rarely-used street outside the apartment block. That distance from audience to action, and physically off-center nature of the stage itself, makes the production look and feel even more off-key.
Still, there is always the mystery of what Evans does when he disappears behind the supposed elevator doors every time his character goes up to that 22nd floor. He doesn’t seem to leave the stage. (Maybe he does, he’s Captain America in another life after all.) Is he just standing there, awaiting his character’s re-entry, for long slices of time? If so, top marks for the kind of stealthy concealment worthy of a superhero.
Lobby Hero is at the Hayes Theater, 250 West 44th Street. Book here.