At this time when truth and morality loom even more important in light of the daily distortions by our current president, Kenneth Lonergan’s play “Lobby Hero” resonates dramatically in the Second Stage revival. The play has nothing to do with current politics, but it has everything to do with how individuals cope with ethical challenges involving the need to face truths no matter the personal costs. It therefore remains an important play for our time, and it is getting a superb production with the penetrating direction by Trip Cullman and the piercing acting by four splendid players.
Each of the characters comes vividly alive and believable as they are brought together amid personal challenges. The setting, designed by David Rockwell, is a lobby of a Manhattan residence in winter of 1999, and Rockwell has cleverly made the lobby revolving so that varying perspectives can be accented for different scenes, as well as for talk outside the building.
The lobby night security attendant is Jeff (played by Michael Cera), who was booted from the Navy for smoking pot, struggles to boost his self-esteem, hopes for a better job someday, but has a bright sense of humor and likes to say what he thinks no matter the consequences. Jeff is a fascinating character, and Cera gives an especially winsome performance.
His boss is William, an African-American security agent, given a thoroughly convincing portrayal by Brian Tyree Henry. William, who also has hopes of advancement, at the outset threatens Jeff with being fired if he is caught sleeping on the job. Despite the tension between them, they develop a friendly relationship until Jeff blabs about a situation in which William has found himself. His brother has been arrested for a particular brutal murder during a robbery attempt and William feels the need to construct an alibi to help his brother despite what he has done as part of a pattern of screw-ups. He makes the mistake of confiding this to Jeff.
The other characters are two cops. One is Bill, memorably acted by Chris Evans as a self-absorbed, arrogant blowhard, who, although married, makes a habit of visiting a prostitute in an upstairs apartment. But he also comes on to his impressionable rookie partner Dawn, played with charm and sometimes toughness by Bel Powley. She has just had the experience of bashing a perceived perpetrator’s head with her club, knocking out his eye, and there could be a lawsuit. She is attracted to Bill as a mentor and as a man, but is subsequently appalled at his upstairs escapades and his dating demand.
The situation is further complicated as Jeff becomes sweet on Dawn. I never thought I’d describe a cop as cute, but Dawn pleasingly lives up to that description. Yet she earns audience cheers when she flashes her temper in rebellion against Bill.
Each of the characters faces a crisis, starting with William’s wanting to lie to aid his brother. Bill is willing to help William in this respect. Dawn feels compelled to tell the truth when she learns it from Jeff, who is pressured to also tell the truth about the false alibi. How each reacts and counter-reacts is at the core of the play.
Would you believe how much laughter Lonergan and the cast evoke from these circumstances? Comedy runs rampant throughout with sharp lines and funny situations. Yet the seriousness of the issues are not overwhelmed by the humor. What makes the play so effective that the characters become so very life-like that by the end of the evening we feel we really know them. The cast functions as an excellent, intertwined ensemble. At the renovated Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200.