I had fun at Three Tall Women–too much fun, I suspect. Its original Off Broadway production, which won Edward Albee his third Pulitzer Prize in 1994 after a dry spell, was more quietly lacerating than what’s currently at the Golden, dreamier, stranger. I mean, all Albee plays are strange, occupying their own fascinating space between his imagination and ours. But this one, with three women, A, B, and C, who seem to have assigned roles (aging dowager mother, dutiful daughter, lawyer) in the first half, then come to represent three ages of the same woman in the second, has a pull all of its own. The story of Albee’s own hated adoptive mother, shot through with pain, regret, and fear, should mirror our own reckoning of youthful idealism lost to midlife drudgery and senior decline, but director Joe Mantello pushes Albee’s rueful humor for laughs. In this he succeeds, with three estimable accomplices in Glenda Jackson (her Broadway return), Laurie Metcalf (returning after her Tony win last year), and Alison Pill successfully lightening the load. The cost, however, is to the play–a description of an act of oral sex as commerce, a weirdly chilling vignette Off Broadway, is now a punchline. And it doesn’t need the cosmic frippery of the admittedly eye-catching set, said to be based on the bedroom seen at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to be “universal.” In going for the funnybone, this revival misses the jugular.
Mostly crated over from the West End and the Menier Chocolate Factory is the Roundabout revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, a Tony winner in 1976. Surviving its passage without a scratch is its star, Tom Hollander, one part baggy pants clown and one part wonky philosopher, with a sliver of tragedy as the play recedes. Recedes as in flood–this is a verbose Stoppardian flapdoodle of Leninism, Dadaism, modernism, bedroom farce, and whatever was whirling around his febrile brain at the time, with Lenin, James Joyce, and Dada founder Tristan Tzara as supporting cut-ups. Hollander plays a burlesque of British consul Henry Wilfred Carr, who wrangled with Joyce when the author lived in Zurich, managing plays that Carr appeared in, unhappily. (Carr is parodied in Ulysses.) The comedy does rattle on, as Stoppard does at his most prolix, and the show will come down to a matter of taste. Director Patrick Marber (himself the author of Closer) manages a fine madness, however, and chances are the irrepressible Hollander will entice the skeptics to stay for the second act.
The best revival of the season, Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, will bolt you to your chair. Partly it’s the tiny seats at the (Helen) Hayes, the new Main Stem home of Off Broadway’s Second Stage–but mostly it’s the play, the closest the Manchester by the Sea Oscar winner has come to penning a thriller, and its outstanding production. An Off Broadway hit in 2001, Lobby Hero, with much trenchant observation (and humor) about class, racism, and sexism, is very much a play of our cultural moment.
The lobby, of an apartment building in Manhattan, is a cunning turntable design by David Rockwell, which shifts perspective along with the POVs of its four characters, the tightest ensemble on Broadway. Jeff (Michael Cera), who washed out of the Marines trying to emulate his difficult father, is now a night security guard, lorded over by the hard-headed William (Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta‘s Paper Boi), who feels that his charge lacks ambition. Two cops, veteran Bill (Chris Evans) and rookie Dawn (Bel Powley) stop by, Bill to tryst with one of the tenants as Dawn looks the other way. Jeff hopes that Dawn will look his way, but as usual he garbles things, making him easy prey for the smugly self-assured Bill, who taunts him. “What do you see her as, a police officer or a piece of ass?” Bill asks. “I don’t know, a police officer piece of ass?” Jeff responds. It’s a funny line, but Cera, very much in his element, knocks it right into the balcony.
Things deepen into even more of an ethical morass when William needs Jeff to support an alibi, in a murder case that Bill, a competent if underhanded officer, is sniffing around. In Lobby Hero, everyone has something on everyone else, and how the cards are shuffled, dealt, and played from scene to scene ratchets tension. The friction, as noted, also leads to some big laughs. It’s all embedded in Lonergan’s play, with the actors bringing out every tone. Henry, who played The General in The Book of Mormon, is gruffly avuncular, then desperate, as the would-be standard bearer who can’t get out from under Bill’s suspicions. The British-born Powley, the star of the fine indie The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), gnashes a fun “New Yawk” accent as a female officer determined to be one of the boys, whose principles are challenged since she’s stuck with the most indiscreet and swaggering of boys. That would be Evans, trading in Captain America’s shield for a badge, and clearly exulting in playing a bad guy (a shaded, Lonerganian bad guy, that is) in his Broadway debut.
With this and the excellent 2014 revival of This Is Our Youth under his belt Cera has become Lonergan’s go-to muse on Broadway, an unexpected but welcome turn for an actor who has been zigzagging since childhood. (He and Henry are up for featured actor Tonys this year, odd in that Cera is clearly lead. But awards bodies are strange entities.) There are depths in Jeff that the floundering security guard is struggling to find, and Cera hauls all of them up. Terrific–and we’ll see him again this fall, with Elaine May, in the Broadway revival of Lonergan’s Pulitzer nominee, The Waverly Gallery.