In the current American climate of daily accusations of “fake news,” public denials of misdeeds, not-so-secret cover-ups of illegal activities, and arbitrary job terminations of public officials at the highest levels of our government, the Broadway premiere of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 four-hander Lobby Hero (following on the heels of the writer’s 2017 Oscar win for Manchester by the Sea) has a renewed relevance, on a more intimate scale, with its themes of truth, ethics, loyalty, and accountability, and its seemingly prescient insight into the momentous Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. Directed by Trip Cullman with a fine balance of humor and tension, Second Stage Theater’s inaugural production in its new home at the refurbished Helen Hayes Theater addresses those hot-button issues in the context of some very human dilemmas.
Is it ok to lie, and to compromise your moral principles, if it means protecting your family and friends, keeping your job, and avoiding the scorn of your colleagues? Or should the truth be told, no matter what the personal cost? Does that honesty then make you a hero, or an outcast? Set in and outside the lobby of an apartment building in Manhattan in the winter of 1999 (rotating set design by David Rockwell), those are the questions confronted by two police officers and two security guards whose lives intersect during the investigation of a murder, in which one of their brothers is a suspect. In a series of one-on-one dialogues, group conversations, and clashes, the characters reveal to each other their aspirations, the backstories of their lives and dysfunctional families, and the high-minded values they don’t always succeed in following, as they make tough decisions about when to speak out and when to conceal what they believe, or would like to believe, is true – or know isn’t.
Lonergan’s ear for the down-to-earth speech patterns and sarcastic wit of working-class New Yorkers, nimbly delivered by the cast, is both believable and empathetic, even as he examines their flaws and questions their judgments. Michael Cera is irresistible as the night guard (“I’m not a doorman”) Jeff, a “long-winded” slacker trying to reform his life, but prone to straight-faced quips, over-sharing, and inserting his foot in his mouth, as he yammers incessantly and inadvertently discloses the secrets of the others, then has to deal with the consequences. Brian Tyree Henry’s powerhouse performance as William, “Captain” of the security guards and the boss Jeff admires, captures the full range of emotions and psychological torment of an honorable hard-working man with a strict code of ethics, who wrestles with his conscience when forced to decide between providing a false alibi for his accused brother, or telling the truth that would likely condemn him, in an inequitable system of justice.
TV and film star Chris Evans makes an impressive Broadway debut as Bill, the less-than-scrupulous, overly-macho, and laughably self-important cop who boasts, bullies, and cheats (on both his wife and his rookie partner Dawn, during their nightly shift, with the promiscuous Mrs. Heinvald in 22J). A misogynist player, “busted” liar, and “total scumbag,” he is the most unlikable of the four, threatening those who cross him, yet adamant in his allegiance to his fellow policemen and vocal in his support of William’s credibility, whether or not they are deserved. Bel Powley’s sit-com-style characterization of Dawn is an endearing combination of feistiness and naïveté; we get the feeling, through her ever-darting eyes and her costly mistakes on the job and with Bill, that she is in over her head, both at work and in life. Despite her small stature, low status, and lack of experience, she ultimately stands up for what’s right, passionately espousing the noble contributions of the police, the efficacy of the courts, and our responsibility to tell the truth. But does she do it solely out of her respect for honesty and the letter of the law, compassion for the victim and concern for society-at-large, or out of her justifiable outrage and vengeance towards Bill?
Lobby Hero is a smart and funny examination of morality and motivation, which reflects today’s headlines and makes us reconsider the personal quandaries involved in adhering to the truth, when our emotions, loyalties, and instinct for self-preservation get in the way.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.