Consider the lobby. Always a means, never an end. It’s the thing people pass through on their way to and from real life. Now consider Jeff (Michael Cera). Always a talker, never a doer. He’s the 27-year-old slacker nodding off behind the security desk in a typical Manhattan residential building. You’re hustling to that expensive ticket or promising date, but Jeff stops you, asking about your job, cracking a joke, didja catch the game last night — anything to ease his boredom and loneliness. Jeff is the ostensible good guy in Kenneth Lonergan’s sardonically titled Lobby Hero (2001), but everyone he tries to help he ends up making miserable. In this bright, snappy revival inaugurating Second Stage Theater’s Broadway home, the boundaries between savior and antagonist are ingeniously blurred. Kinda like a lobby: neither here nor there.
Director Trip Cullman commands a starry ensemble — adorkable indie icon Cera is joined by Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) as Jeff’s supervisor, William; Chris Evans (The Avengers’ Captain America) and Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) play NYPD partners — but the focus stays on Lonergan’s sly, winding dialogue. Lobby Hero may appear to be a boulevard comedy with touches of urban grit, but beneath, it’s a grim study of inescapable ethical traps. The beauty of Lonergan’s writing (for the stage as well as for his heartbreaker films) is how he maintains a fine balance between moral debate and observational comedy. His doomed losers may not escape fate, but they chatter brilliantly as the walls close in.
Officious security captain William enters the lobby late one evening to check up on Jeff, ever the sloppy jokester. Supervisor and underling have a big-and-little-brother vibe, neatly underscored by the fact that Jeff’s crashing at his older sibling’s Astoria pad, and William’s troubled younger brother has been picked up by the police. William exhorts Jeff to take life seriously and tap his potential; Jeff begs William to get off his back and, anyway, he’s trying.
As a newbie in uniform, Jeff doubles with Dawn (Powley), the rookie being trained — and casually shtupped — by smug alpha cop Bill (Evans). Jeff is infatuated with Dawn and, out of self-interest, lets slip that Bill is having an affair with a glamorous woman in the building. Bill habitually visits apartment 22-J under cover of seeing a “friend,” making Dawn wait for him downstairs during their shift. Dawn’s hurt; Bill’s pissed at Jeff for gossiping; and Jeff’s no nearer to realizing a vividly relayed fantasy of being tortured by semi-nude lady cops. After the police leave, William returns to reveal that his brother has been accused of participating in the murder of a nurse, and needs him, William, to lie for an alibi. Jeff becomes the fidgety, wisecracking center of these overlapping dramas, and how he connects and catalyzes them forms the humor and tension of the evening.
With its precisely timed release of details and its quartet of clashing agendas, Lobby Hero skirts the edge of farce without tumbling in. It’s often bitterly funny, but Lonergan writes with such compassion, you never forget that these are real people with genuine flaws and ideals. Dawn, tired of being hit on by the doorman (as she derisively refers to Jeff), tells him to shut up. “Why don’t you say something for a few seconds and then I’ll say something back and we’ll go on like that,” he counters, voice rising in desperation. “I’m a goddamn security guard for Christ’s sake. I’m lonely as shit. There’s three other guys in this building and I never see them except on the video screen. I’ll shut up. I’d love to hear somebody else talk.”
Apart from such lovely mini-arias and his skill with punch lines, Lonergan sneaks in trenchant points about racism in the criminal-justice system, sexual harassment, and the brokenness of the courts. But he’s never preaching or pandering. One remarkable thing about the play’s construction is that the audience is left guessing at many crucial facts. We don’t know if William’s brother actually took part in the crime. We don’t know if Dawn wrongly assumes that Bill is extorting sex; she might have misinterpreted his “You better be nice to me.” Here’s a morality tale where no one in the audience, or onstage, has enough information to act with moral certitude.
Cullman stages the text attentive to its parallel lines, shadowy elisions, and shifting center. A clumsier approach would flatten the material into urban sitcom or place too much weight on Jeff as our likable, reliable protagonist. In fact, it’s William, the only black character, who carries the biggest burden of family tragedy and personal danger. And Henry does an outstanding job conveying all the shades of dignity, arrogance, and exasperation his character goes through. When Henry’s in the scene, the play is William’s tragedy.
Still, Cera holds his own, jamming hands in pockets defiantly, constantly adjusting his ill-fitting rent-a-cop slacks. Jeff is part mensch, part weasel, and Cera finds the sweet spot. Cullman also gets strong, resonant work from the rest of the ensemble. Evans’s douchebag cop is not corrupt in the usual way; he’s just a narcissistic horndog who thinks machismo and charisma will keep the peace. Powley’s green Dawn may overreact out of insecurity, but she’s got steel in her spine and may make a hell of a cop one day. And Jeff? Even though, from a certain perspective, he screws everything up out of selfishness and weakness, Jeff is not a villain. Then again, he’s no hero. He’s in between — again, kinda like that lobby.