Lucky Guy: Theater Review

Peter Gerety Tom Hanks - H 2013
Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown
A tender valentine to the scrappy dinosaurs of pre-Internet tabloid journalism.

Tom Hanks makes his Broadway debut in Nora Ephron's posthumously premiering final play - a biodrama about New York tabloid columnist Mike McAlary.

NEW YORK – A frequent stumbling block in any dense dramatic chronicle is too much tell, not enough show. But the late Nora Ephron circumvents that problem in her entertaining salute to the tabloid newspaper business of the 1980s and ‘90s, Lucky Guy. She smartly enlists a garrulous crew of reporters and editors to serve as the oral-history vessel for her nostalgic look back at old-school, foot-in-the-door journalism.

Even to those outside the profession, the writer’s obvious love for her subject should prove infectious in this posthumously produced premiere. Directed with warmth and vitality by George C. Wolfe, it’s performed with relish by a dynamic cast of pros, piloted by an uncharacteristically rough-edged Tom Hanks.

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The play has been grossing more than $1 million a week in previews, which is uncommon for a non-musical; it opens with reported advance ticket sales of $10 million. Along with Ephron’s name, much of that undoubtedly is due to the drawing power of Hanks, making a confidently unshowy Broadway debut as the “lucky guy” of the title, columnist Mike McAlary. But the nature of the material is also key. This is a real dyed-in-the-wool New York City play. And there’s a special charge that comes from sitting in a Broadway theater feeling that two-way electrical connection between an audience and the stage.

Is it exceptional drama? Not by any means. It’s talky, cursory in its conflict exploration, and not exactly packed with complexity. Yet it’s intelligently written, engrossing and laced with crackling humor. It also helps that Lucky Guy’s sentimentality is honest and heartfelt.

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Ephron originally conceived the project as a screenplay before reworking it for the stage. Drawing on her early career at the New York Post (prior to McAlary’s tenure there) and on first-hand accounts from many of her principal subject’s close associates, she was working with Wolfe to shape the material right up until her death last June. The play in many ways is an unexpected testament. Brimming with testosterone and grit, it’s an unabashed celebration of male camaraderie, swaggering ambition and competitiveness. To use a term favored by boozing tabloid editor John Cotter (Peter Gerety), one of many real-life figures portrayed here, it’s a salty serving of “red meat” from a writer better known for rom-com salads.

Borrowing from Woody Allen, who framed Broadway Danny Rose with a bunch of talent agents swapping stories over eats at the Carnegie Deli, Ephron gathers McAlary’s colleagues at an Irish pub to rehash his glory days. The scene is set in 1985 by Hap Hairston (Courtney B. Vance), who, along with Cotter, was one of the editors instrumental in nurturing McAlary’s raw talent and helping him pass for a better writer than he actually was. The crack epidemic was taking hold and the murder rate climbing in a polarized city. “It was a grand and glorious time to be in the tabloid business,” says Hairston.

Interweaving spoken recollections with scenes brought to life, the play traces McAlary’s rise through the ranks, first as a hungry newcomer at Newsday and then bouncing between the Post and the Daily News. Showing an instinctive knack for getting people to talk, McAlary’s generous nature earned him the friendship and loyalty of his colleagues and the trust of his sources. Chief among them were the city police who generated much of his copy, ranging from accounts of their heroism to exposés of their corruption. His reporting on the crooked cops of New York’s 77th Precinct helped make him a star byline.

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But Hanks doesn’t allow his nice-guy persona to beatify McAlary, a burly figure with a thick mustache, who famously looked like a cop himself. Knocking back beers with his buddies and spewing profanities, he’s brash, cocky and reckless, a wise-ass Irish-American muckraker whose ego inflates even more rapidly than his reputation. His moxie makes a fan of Eddie Hayes (Christopher McDonald), the slick lawyer who brokers McAlary’s lucrative deals when he starts commanding higher salaries as a columnist.

While Hanks makes it clear that Mike loves his wife Alice (Maura Tierney) and their unseen kids, he’s also unapologetic about putting the newsroom and professional glory first. Hanks is not afraid to make the character an abrasive jerk, yet the actor’s innate integrity ensures that we feel for Mike when he takes some hard knocks.

The first of these is an auto accident in 1993 that leaves him seriously injured. When he returns to work, still shaky on his feet and a little slower in his speech, he makes poor judgment calls in his incendiary coverage of a rape case that he believes is fabricated. The resulting libel suit damages his credibility. But the real blow comes when he is diagnosed with colon cancer.

As anyone who lived in New York in the 1990s will recall, McAlary rebounded from the newsprint margins when he broke the story of two Brooklyn cops’ vicious brutalization of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima (Stephen Tyrone Williams, superb in his single scene). His reporting on the case earned him a Pulitzer Prize, just months before his death on Christmas Day, 1998.

Ephron ably traces the Icarus tale in McAlary’s history before dramatizing his professional and personal redemption in the immensely moving final scenes. Hanks’ stirring delivery of McAlary’s celebratory Pulitzer speech in the newsroom of the Daily News, with Alice by his side, is made more powerful by the evident decline of his health as well as the graciousness with which he acknowledges everyone who helped him land the unexpected honor.

As much as the writing, it’s the laser-like focus of Wolfe’s savvy staging that makes this story resonate. Working on a simple set by David Rockwell that shifts fluidly from cigarette smoke-clouded newsrooms to bars to the McAlarys’ home, and making good use of projections, the director evokes a vivid sense of time and place. And his tightly unified ensemble suggests full back-stories for their characters, usually with just a few swift strokes.

Tierney has relatively little to do in dramatic terms, but she brings backbone and perceptiveness to forthright Alice, making her an extremely grounded pragmatist. And actors like Peter Scolari, Richard Masur, Danny Mastrogiorgio and Michael Gaston make lively music of the rat-tat-tat newsroom banter of Ephron’s dialogue. Vance is terrific as the whip-smart black editor who, even with the sharpest of professional skills, has had to stay on his toes to keep ahead in a white man’s game. Gerety is roguishly appealing as Cotter, whose tank seems to run on equal parts ink and whiskey, his philosophies as blunt as news headlines. And McDonald animates the acutely observant Hayes with tough-guy smarts and wry amusement.

While the play focuses on a specific character and milieu, its crowning distinction for many will be as an affectionate elegy for an already remote era in journalism. The very nature of breaking news – of deadlines, scoops and exclusives – has changed so radically with the 24-hour news cycle and the decimation of the newspaper business that these characters seem almost aware of the inexorable extinction of their breed. That thread enhances the dramatic texture, but also adds poignant notes to the memory of both McAlary and Ephron.

Venue: Broadhurst Theatre, New York (runs through July 3)

Cast: Tom Hanks, Christopher McDonald, Peter Gerety, Courtney B. Vance, Peter Scolari, Richard Masur, Maura Tierney, Brian Dykstra, Michael Gaston, Dustyn Gulledge, Andrew Hovelson, Deirdre Lovejoy, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Stephen Tyrone Williams

Director: George C. Wolfe

Playwright: Nora Ephron

Set designer: David Rockwell

Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James

Lighting designers: Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer

Sound designer: Scott Lehrer

Projection designer: Batwin + Robin Productions

Presented by Colin Callender, Roy Furman, Arielle Tepper Madover, Roger & William Berlind, Stacey Mindich, Robert Cole & Frederick Zollo, David Mirvish, Daryl Roth, James D. Stern/Douglas L. Meyer, Scott & Brian Zeilinger, in association with Sonia Friedman Productions and The Shubert Organization.