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Director Trip Cullman explains why this 2001 play resonates more than ever
Director Trip Cullman had been trying to mount a production of Lobby Hero for years before Second Stage Theater approached him about inaugurating the company's new Broadway home with the 2001 Kenneth Lonergan play. Considering Cullman's history with Second Stage (seven shows including The Layover, The Substance of Fire, and Some Men) and his obsession with Lonergan (Oscar winner for Manchester by the Sea), he immediately signed on. "It was kind of out of the blue but really welcome," says Cullman, who had done readings of the play with a different theatre company before that project fell apart. "When I want to work with a playwright, I stalk them until they let me direct a play of theirs. That's definitely true of Kenny. I think his writing is so, so, so special, and I always thought Lobby Hero was an underappreciated gem in his canon."
A chamber dramedy about four blue-collar New Yorkers -- struggling security guard Jeff (Michael Cera), his strict supervisor William (Brian Tyree Henry), macho cop Bill (Chris Evans of Captain America fame), and his rookie partner Dawn (Bel Powley) -- clashing over a crime, Lobby Hero explores hot-button issues like classism, racism, and sexism. So even though it was written almost two decades ago and is set in 1999, it speaks very much to today's political climate.
"The reasons why I thought it would be a really good time to do this play obviously kind of changed because of #MeToo," says Cullman, referring to the viral movement to raise awareness of the ubiquity of sexual assault and harassment. Bill is the poster child for toxic masculinity, using his power to manipulate Dawn. When she finally finds a way to fight back, the women in the audience erupt into exuberant cheers. "I did not see the original production at Playwrights Horizons in 2001, but I think it's very, very different now," says Cullman. "The way female audience members vocally react, it feels so encouraging and exciting. I think before there may have been some uncomfortable laughter, but now people have no time for Bill's shenanigans. There's been this massive paradigmatic shift that's happened in our culture this year."
Yet Lobby Hero is not some feminist revenge story. Just as its tone alternates between drama and comedy, the audience's sympathy shifts frequently among the characters as they do questionable things to protect themselves or advance their own agendas. "What I think makes the play so delicious to watch is that everyone is both right and wrong," says Cullman. "You watch these four characters trapped in a situation where they have to make impossible choices that are going to end up destroying somebody else's life or their own lives or both. This play is almost Shavian. It's filled with moments where there's this massive dichotomy between doing the right thing and the right thing for you."
Thanks to his Hollywood superhero status, a lot of the press surrounding Lobby Hero has focused on Evans, who's making his Broadway debut in the show. Cullman was the one who actually reached out to him about doing the play. "I thought it was a genius casting idea -- not to toot my own horn!" the director says. "You have somebody known for being Captain America come in and playing what is -- for the first minute or so -- a heroic police officer. All of the good will Chris brings is thrown on its head when you realize what an unmitigated shmuck Bill is. What a bait and switch to pull on the audience."
Indeed, spectators who come to see a hunky movie star live in the flesh may not even recognize Evans in this role. (The night I attended, he didn't even get entrance applause.) With his darkened hair, controversial but character-appropriate pornstache, and sexist attitude, he's as close to a bad guy as the play gets.
But, like most of Lonergan's scripts (the plays This Is Our Youth and The Starry Messenger; the movies You Can Count on Me and Margaret), Lobby Hero doesn't trade in moral absolutes. As David Rockwell's clever set spins to provide different perspectives on the action, the audience's allegiances change so often that, by the end, you're not sure who to root for. Or as Cullman succinctly puts it: "Everyone is a lobby hero and a lobby villain."
To read about a student's experience at Lobby Hero, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Chris Evans and Michael Cera in Lobby Hero. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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