Jeff is a "f-ck up.” Kicked out of the Navy and in debt, he’s living in one room that he rents from his brother. For the last nine months, he’s been working the graveyard shift as a security guard (not a doorman, which he takes pains to explain). Funny and garrulous -- his boss, William (Brian Tyree Henry of TV’s Atlanta), calls him a “joker" -- Jeff is also somewhat lonely, and when anyone else shows up, he talks almost nonstop.
The central character in Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero, now playing at The Hayes Theater, Jeff, anxious to make connections, insinuates himself into other people's lives. Among them is William, who has an ethical dilemma: Should he provide the alibi for his brother who may have committed a horrific crime? Jeff lends a willing ear as William confides in him about his quandary. Later, whether it’s to impress the young female probationary cop or to ease his own conscience, Jeff reveals some of what’s been shared with him in confidence. He also lets the cop, Dawn, know that her partner Bill has been upstairs in the building spending time with a prostitute.
Trip Cullman deftly directs the revival of this prize-winning play. Lonergan’s work is skillfully written, understated with well-drawn characters. He also provides a subtle racial commentary when the two guards are discussing a murder. If the victim is white, Jeff notes, the article in the paper will be on the front page; if she’s black, it will be further back. Later we are told that the story is on page 20.
As Jeff, Michael Cera begins slowly but eventually makes the role his own, speaking almost non-stop and earnestly. Known primarily for his many movie and TV roles (including Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Juno) he is boyish and gangly, with the nebbish quality of Jesse Eisenberg. He tries hard to become likable and ingratiating and he is successful. Like Michael, we begrudgingly begin to like him.
Even more enjoyable is Chris Evans (Captain America) as the swaggering, manipulative policemen Bill. Sporting a mustache and a New York accent, Evans exudes cockiness and arrogance. When his partner threatens to turn him in for visiting his "friend” upstairs during his shift, he so smoothly turns on the charm and the lies that he almost gets away with it. He charms us despite his sordidness.
Making her Broadway debut, British actress Bel Powley plays Dawn, the young cop who is fighting to be accepted by her peers as a policewoman. Diminutive, Powley shouts most of her lines, as if to make up for her size and to suggest NY toughness.
Much of the play is funny until Jeff begins to reveal other people's secrets and the audience sits there cringing. We know exactly what he will do yet hope he won’t.
Although the play ends with a lot up in the air (Dawn’s job, Bill’s promotion, William’s brother) the last scene suggests a touch of hope. The son of a Naval hero, Jeff yearns to make a difference. By the end, he must learn that a hero puts himself at risk, not others.