Kenneth Lonergan’s gift as a playwright is his ability to set up the bruising pain of a laugh that crashes into pathos. Every quip has character consequences. Yet, when his work moves to Broadway somehow the carefully balanced sad-funny tone he crafts gets ground down to a brash haha-funny. It denudes the work of its power and all the subtlety of its intentions. We’re suddenly in sitcom-land moving at breakneck speed with no breaths in between jests to recognize the suspended emotional space that is in the writing. It happened occasionally in Anna D. Shapiro’s production of This Is Our Youth and it’s frequently infecting the revival of Lonergan’s play Lobby Hero directed by Trip Cullman. Both plays starred Michael Cera and his monochromatic, awkward, fumbling schtick is part of the problem.
In Lobby Hero, Cera is Jeff, the lonely, hapless, logorrheic security guard (well, doorman) keeping lazy watch on a nondescript Manhattan apartment building on the graveyard shift. Nothing has gone right in his life and he seems to trip headfirst into every bone-headed move he makes. But lately he’s been holding things together and this lobby job has been helping him keep steady. He interacts regularly with two police officers, the overly-confident, bullying Bill (Chris Evans in his Broadway debut) and the wet-behind-the-ears rookie Dawn (Bel Powley). But when his supervisor William (Brian Tyree Henry) confides in him about some police troubles William’s brother is having these two worlds collide.
Moral conundrums abound for all the characters and Jeff is not the only bungler of righteousness among them. Lonergan’s play sets up the characters quite openly (and obviously) for these conflicts. The world is sexist, racist, and class lines still exist and none of the characters’ decisions take place in a vacuum. Each of these working-class characters are trying to make the world work for them in their own way and none of them come to it with advantages—Dawn is looking for purpose and acceptance, Bill advancement, William respect and authority, and Jeff…is trying not to be what he’s always been with no path to not be Jeff.
From what is revealed to us about each of them, it can feel sickeningly preordained at times that their natures will lead them to lie, betray, and wound each other. All we can do is watch. However, the performances and this production make some of this less artful than it could be and the inevitability more pronounced.
Cera can only deliver what he always does–his trademark on-screen deadpan. Sometimes this is funny but for a character who is lost and struggling to find his way we need some emotional guideposts. We need to see range so there’s an arc and we can experience the variation in Jeff’s anxiety and angst. Cera, alas, cannot help us. He can fidget with the change in his pockets, finger the buckle on his pants, chew a pen top, and juggle the pen from pocket to pocket. Cullman has given him plenty of stage business but he imbues none of it with any meaning. It’s busy work. And it’s infuriating.
He’s our central lens on the play and he’s incapable of ever having an articulated performance intention. Cera’s Jeff is all present and no past. When he’s fidgeting with the pen, I felt like I was watching Michael Cera in that moment hold a pen because he was told to. I did not see Jeff funneling his nervous energy somewhere, hiding his discomfort, or soothing his frantic mind. When Jeff speaks of his late father, or nervously muses about the changing police uniforms of his youth, or his own struggles to re-establish himself, Cera brings no rumination or magnitude to his thoughts. Cera can be the smart-alecky fool but there’s a depth to Jeff on the page that calls for more and I strained to see it revealed in Cera’s performance.
Evans, playing against his leading man type, is smarmy and manipulative. He’s slick and greasy in his ease to manage the situations to his benefit. He brings great humor to the role, however, when he loses control, he is not quite menacing enough. His flat top, buzz cut and push broom mustache make him look more angular, unfamiliar, and insidious. But there’s not enough darkness in his anger to truly inspire fear. Even an affable bully can change the temperature in the room if his dander is up, but you’re never quite convinced Evans’ Bill will make good on any of his threats. And that danger is necessary for the characters to react the way they do.
Henry takes his time with all that William says and does. Henry offers a rich repertoire of side-eye to deploy at Jeff (his resistant reaction to Jeff sharing a sex fantasy is alone a triumph). But more importantly he’s the character in the most obvious turmoil. With teary eyes and gripping anguish, he reveals his character’s moral dilemma in the face of systemic racism. Does he lie to protect his brother or tell the truth and hope his brother is not swept away by an unjust justice system? It’s a beautifully nuanced performance in what can otherwise be a blunt production.
Powley can play wide-eyed innocent and she beams with any affection she gets from Bill, but she’s weaker revealing her working-class roots and faux-bravado. Dawn and Jeff need chemistry—a recognition of the vulnerability in the other—but without much from Cera, Powley is acting into a void. She carries herself differently out of uniform and it shows she has range, but it’s a hard role. Dawn must be in over-her-head, self-aware, hopeful, and lost all together. Powley can be some of those things but not all of them at the same time.
Cullman loses control of the production, allowing these performances to skate along on the surface. Lonergan’s play is supported by humor but that cannot be the only thing you feel. The humor needs to live in harmony with the reality of the world that surround these characters. The scenic design (by David Rockwell) and delicately applied lighting (by Japhy Weideman) all make the space for real life to creep in. But I wish there had been more authentic ache in the voices in the room.