Tom Hanks is a natural. Although he hasn’t trod the boards in years, the affable movie star takes to the stage like a fish to water in “Lucky Guy,” Nora Ephron’s affectionate nostalgia piece about that gritty era of the 1980s when big-mouth tabloid journalists like Mike McAlary were the media stars of big, bad, dirty Gotham City. Helmer George C. Wolfe has embedded Hanks in a terrific ensemble of veteran character actors and a helluva time is had by all. But once the star ankles, as stars must, the shelf life of this New York-centered show is zilch.
There’s a “Goodbye to All That” poignancy to this sweet and sloppy kiss to the boys in the big city newsrooms where the playwright got her start as a cub reporter for the New York Post. As the last thing that Ephron worked on before she died last year, the show that celebrates the giddy beginnings of her career also sustained her through the end of it.
It was the same thing with McAlary (Hanks), a hard-drinking, hard-driving, hard-headed police reporter who broke the most sensational story of his career while undergoing chemotherapy. And while death ultimately prevailed, his good work on that landmark story — an expose of the savage station-house rape of Abner Louima, movingly recounted here by Stephen Tyrone Williams from a hospital bed — kept the journo alive long enough to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Like his ink-stained peers who are fondly represented in this warmly entertaining ensemble piece, McAlary ricocheted from the Post to the Daily News to New York Newsday in the scary days when crack cocaine had the city by the throat and scrappy journalists were the only ones keeping score on the exploding crime rates. (In the testimony of the boys in the back room, “It was a great time to be in the tabloid business.”) While he may not have been worthy of changing typewriter ribbons for writers like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, or the great Mike Royko in mobbed-up Chicago, McAlary was a fearless muckraker, a bulldog at breaking crime stories and exposing police corruption.
Being a great reporter made McAlary a lucky guy, but it didn’t necessarily make him a nice guy — and that’s where Hanks comes in. As an actor whose niceness is the key component of his DNA, Hanks can play selfish, arrogant, cunning, and calculating without losing his sources or alienating his enemies. The inherent decency he projects redeems this prickly character from his less than princely behavior toward friend, foe, and long-suffering family.
Not that Ephron goes out of her way to dig deeply into the psychology of McAlary’s obsessive personality. For all his flaws, she loves this rogue as unconditionally as she loved the untarnished younger heroes she wrote for Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
The episodic structure and presentational performance style are well designed (and superbly executed by helmer Wolfe) for a story built from the collective memory of the people who lived it. It makes perfect sense that more than a dozen reporters, editors, columnists, and their sources should have a hand in shaping the bare-bones events of McAlary’s meteoric rise and bumpy fall to earth, because his life story is theirs as well — or at least, the life story they’d like to think they lived.
To journalists and tabloid junkies of a certain age, some of the names will be familiar: Great, hands-on editors like John Cotter and Hap Hairston (played with break-your-heart professional passion by Peter Gerety and Courtney B. Vance), columnists Michael Daly (Peter Scolari) and Jim Dwyer (Michael Gaston), reporters Bob Drury (Danny Mastrogiorgio) and, always last and least, Louise Imerman (Deirdre Lovejoy), the tough-as-nails “lady” staffer who cynically notes that neither the play nor the 1980s newsroom was a place for ladies.
“This is a story about guys, guys with cops, cops with guys,” she says. And the guys all liked McAlary because “he made them think they could go back to the days when there were no women around, none, just Irish guys at the bar all night long.”
After a hard day’s night in the newsroom, that’s where they all wound up, at bars like Elaine’s and Ryan’s and McGuire’s and O’Lunney’s — holy places in David Rockwell’s settings, with bottles of booze lined up like candles on altars, lighted in glowing gold tones by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. If the bars were their churches, then Irish songs like “Wild Rover” were both their hymns and, in the end, their dirges. Because as Ephron tells the sad story, they couldn’t last, those glory days when journalism was a congenial profession, conducted face to face and fist to fist. Maybe it ended when Mike McAlary died — or maybe when reporters stopped answering their phones.
Broadhurst Theater; 1,212 seats; $152 top
A presentation 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, and Scott & Brian Zeilinger, in association with Sonia Friedman Productions and the Shubert Organization, of a play in two acts by Nora Ephron. Directed by George C. Wolfe.
Sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; sound, Scott Lehrer; lighting, Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer; projections, Batwin-Robin Productions, Inc.; hair & wigs, Robert-Charles Vallance; production stage manager, Jane Grey. Opened April 1, 2013. Reviewed March 28. Running time: 2 HOURS.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Courtney B. Vance, Peter Gerety, Michael Gaston, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Peter Scolari, Richard Masur, Deirdre Lovejoy, Dustyn Gulledge, Maura Tierney, Brian Dykstra, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tyrone Williams, Andrew Hovelson.