Kenneth Lonergan transforms the everyday lives of ordinary people into extraordinary art. His portrait of a grieving family in Manchester by the Sea earned the 2017 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and an additional Oscar nod for Lonergan’s direction. But long before the film industry took note of his talent, Kenny Lonergan fell in love with theater — and his acclaimed 2001 drama Lobby Hero is set for a Broadway revival at Second Stage’s newly refurbished Hayes Theater, beginning March 1.
Lobby Hero centers on four New Yorkers who find themselves in an ethical and romantic tangle that gets more complex over the course of Lonergan’s cleverly constructed play. Chris Evans, known to movie audiences as Captain America, will make his Broadway debut as a less-than-upstanding police officer, with British actress Bel Powley as his rookie partner. Brian Tyree Henry, a Broadway veteran and breakout star of TV’s Atlanta, plays the head of security at a Manhattan apartment building, with screen favorite Michael Cera (Superbad, TV’s Arrested Development) as a ne’er-do-well overnight security guard.
The Broadway mounting of Lobby Hero represents a full-circle moment for Lonergan and Second Stage, which produced his breakthrough 1996 play, This Is Our Youth, and his Pulitzer Prize–nominated 1999 play, The Waverly Gallery. “They’re very supportive of artists,” he says of the company, “and they’re committed to reviving work they think is important. Plays tend to vanish after their first exposure, and it’s great to have an institution that sees a bit further than that.” He’s delighted that Lobby Hero was chosen as Second Stage’s inaugural Broadway production. “The Hayes is a nice, intimate theatre,” he says of the 575-seat house. “It seems perfect.”
In conversation, Lonergan is droll and self-effacing, referring to his Oscar as “this weird totemic object people are drawn to” when they spot it in the downtown home he shares with his wife, actress J. Smith-Cameron, and their teenage daughter, Nellie. He answers questions in a thoughtful, formal way, which makes his gift for vivid, character-driven dialogue all the more striking.
“I’m not aware of what my ‘voice’ is, because I try not to have one,” Lonergan explains. “I try to imagine fully formed people and replicate the way they talk. When it’s successful, it’s the same as remembering a conversation with a friend — you can close your eyes and hear the inflections in their voice, their choice of words, and the speech patterns they fall into. I might not understand what they’re going through inside, but it’s easy enough to listen to them talking and write it down.”
The strivers in Lobby Hero were inspired by Lonergan’s vision of a female police officer standing in a lobby with a male security guard, “dressed nearly identically except one of them has a gun,” and his memory of a guard he met while working as a delivery boy for a liquor store. The play touches on sexual harassment and questionable police conduct, but Lonergan declines to take credit for its continuing relevance. “The truth is, those issues have always been with us,” he says. “The underlying struggles people go through haven’t changed very much.”
Chuckling at the playwright’s modesty, Second Stage Artistic Director Carole Rothman praises Lobby Hero as “a fierce, funny play that says a lot about what people are thinking about and talking about. It has bite, it has wit, and the issues it deals with — sexual harassment, respect for law and order, shifts in what morality really means — have a lot of resonance today. The characters are in their twenties and thirties, and the things they grapple with are still with us. I just think the play was prescient.”
Lonergan grows animated when asked about his movie-star headliners. “I’m really excited to see them embody these parts,” he says of Chris Evans, who plays against type as a philandering cop, and Michael Cera, who shined as a slacker in the 2014 Broadway revival of This Is Our Youth. Evans “has incredible charisma and charm, which the character needs,” Lonergan says, adding that the ambitious cop “has this beautiful capacity to shift his morals at the drop of a hat.” Cera, a perfect fit as the nerdy title character, brings “everything you want in an actor: a wonderful sense of humor, emotional depth, and great stage presence. He knows how to build a performance and keep it alive.”
In his own youth, Lonergan became stage-struck while attending the now-closed Walden School on New York’s Upper West Side, where his classmates included Matthew Broderick. (“We’re closer than brothers,” he says of their 40-year friendship.) The budding dramatist devoured his mother’s set of the complete works of George Bernard Shaw and, at age 18, was one of the first winners at the annual Young Playwrights Festival. Today, in spite of his Oscar and previous nominations for the screenplays of You Can Count on Me and Gangs of New York, theater remains his top priority.
“It sounds like a cliché, but there’s something magical about it,” he says of the bond between actors and audiences. “It is an agreeable arrangement — everyone agrees to sit down and pretend that the actors in front of them are really in China and not in a little lit space near 42nd Street. The mutual suspension of disbelief is an extremely friendly act. And when it’s good, there’s nothing like it. There’s no way to replicate the feeling of being in the room with the characters, and the interplay between that audience and those actors and that material.”
Seventeen years after Lobby Hero’s debut, Lonergan looks back with satisfaction at one of his most admired works. “This play was a particular challenge because there’s so much offstage action, but I like it a lot,” he admits. “I like the characters. If you’re writing something that has some humanity in it, I think it will survive.”
Photo by Mark Seliger.