As to the ethical quandaries and quagmires in which these people are mired, they feel even more pointedly and sadly relevant than they did when “Lobby Hero” was first performed at Playwrights Horizons 17 years ago. References to sexual harassment, abuses of power in the workplace and racial profiling scarcely seemed to raise an eyebrow when I first saw the show in 2001; they evoke audible, anxious murmurs in the audience of 2018.
In the age of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Americans may be newly receptive to “Lobby Hero.” But don’t imagine that this work, directed with savvy restraint by Trip Cullman, is an agenda-driven debate.
Mr. Lonergan, you see, doesn’t work in bold blacks and whites, but in compelling shades of gray. He understands that purity of thought and deed is pretty much impossible in this muddy world. As a creator of plays (“This Is Our Youth,” “Hold On to Me Darling”) and films (“You Can Count on Me,” “Manchester by the Sea”), he specializes in screw-ups, compromised souls who would like to do the right thing, if only they had the backbone for it, or if they could figure out what it is.
His dialogue is fueled by vacillation, equivocation and contradiction, with sentences that seem to eat their own words. Few actors are as qualified to deliver such precisely indefinite speech as Mr. Cera, a veteran of the ace 2014 Broadway revival of “This Is Our Youth.” Mr. Cera’s Jeff is a quintessential Lonergan loser, an uneasy 27-year-old who was thrown out of the Navy for smoking pot and has vowed to become a real adult.
So now he works the night shift in a residential lobby that reeks of urban loneliness. (David Rockwell is the set designer.) It’s a job that’s hard to take seriously. But Jeff’s disciplined supervisor, played with bone-tired alertness by Mr. Henry, has a strict list of rules and regulations. He, at least, seems to be someone who knows what’s what.
So, at first glance, does Mr. Evans’s Bill. He’s a cocky, friendly guy who oozes self-assurance and is known around his precinct as Super Cop. (And, yes, this is the same Mr. Evans who played the superhero Captain America onscreen.) Bill is just the person for someone like the eager, dewy Dawn, fresh out of the Police Academy, to have as a protective mentor, right?
And there you have the tidy setup for a play that operates on a system of moving parallels. Jeff’s admiration for his boss is tested after William learns that his older brother has been arrested in connection with the murder of a nurse and William is asked to provide an alibi. William, who is African-American, knows how easy it would be for his brother to get lost in the legal system.
Dawn’s hero worship of Bill is complicated by their having slept together. Disenchantment will set in fully when she learns why her partner is paying such regular visits to the building where Jeff works.
These characters wind up unwisely confiding in one another; they can’t help themselves. And by the play’s end everyone will have betrayed or been betrayed — in most cases, both.
The first time I saw “Lobby Hero,” it felt a bit too openly schematic. It still does occasionally, especially during a protracted stretch of secret sharing in the second act.
But the performances here all so grounded that you never doubt their characters’ authenticity or (pardon the word) sincerity. And because each portrait is so completely and ingeniously physicalized (watch how they each inhabit a uniform), we soon learn their “tells”; we know when they’re deceiving themselves.
Mr. Evans is a marvel of smooth calculation and bluster. His Bill is the most blatantly manipulative of the characters, which means the most likely to succeed.
Ms. Powley’s avid, impulsive and dangerously green Dawn is the perfect sidekick to this handsome sleaze. Mr. Henry (FX’s “Atlanta”) offers a deeply moving study of resignation and rebellion, courage and compromise in uneasy counterpoint.
Mr. Cera’s perfectly uneasy Jeff gives full weight to both the hopeful decency and bad faith that lurk in all Lonergan characters. It makes sense when others say they can’t tell when Jeff is joking; he doesn’t always know himself.
There’s a reason that Mr. Rockwell’s set revolves between scenes, forcing us to adjust our angles of observation. Like morality, identity is relative in “Lobby Hero.” Few playwrights match Mr. Lonergan in making confident art out of such constantly shifting uncertainty.
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