Nora Ephron's last play is about the world of New York tabloids, and it's a lot like the messy subject she looks at - overindulgent, overstuffed and raucous. That's its charm as well as its undoing.
"Lucky Guy," starring Tom Hanks sporting a wedge of a mustache, focuses on Mike McAlary, the city's one-time dominant tabloid reporter. His rise and fall and rise again during the 1980s and '90s helped define the transition from boys-will-be-boys notepad journalism to the buttoned-up, professional digital recorders of today.
Ephron's play, which opened Monday at the Broadhurst Theatre, has touches of film noir, a ton of testosterone and profanity and moments of humor but not too much elegance or heft.
It's Ephron's valentine to those hard-charging, heavy-smoking, gruff reporters she met in newsrooms with ink in their veins and booze on their breath. Ephron's humor can be heard, but only faintly. At times, watching it is more like enduring a verbal assault by drunken Irish-American frat boys.
Hanks, making his Broadway debut, is classic Hanks - lovable, touching and funny. "It's New York City, who can relax?" he says at the beginning, before turning to someone in the audience. "Are you relaxed?" He makes a great Broadway debut, making McAlary a lovable rogue we have to root for even if we sometimes shouldn't.
McAlary, who bounced from tabloid to tabloid during his career, was a star even before he got the first interview with Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was sodomized and beaten by white police officers at a station house in 1997. McAlary would win the Pulitzer Prize the next year but would die of cancer a few months later at age 41.
Ephron, who died of leukemia last summer at age 71, gained fame as the writer of films such as "You've Got Mail" and "Sleepless in Seattle," which both also starred Hanks.
Ephron has structured the play chronologically, but as if it were a story told in a bar, with the supporting actors pulling each other into onstage roles ("Who wants to play Eddie Hayes?" one actor asks the ensemble. At another point, someone says while walking offstage: "And by the way, that is the end of me in this story.") It's cute at first, but soon grows grating.
Ephron also has broken one of the cardinal rules of journalism - show, don't tell. There is far too much expository writing and at various points, characters will tell the audience something and then pointlessly repeat it when they return to the scene.
Adding to the frantic nature of the piece is all the modern toys thrown at it - projected images, archive footage, TV sets, smoke machines, desks whizzing by, even a live camera broadcasting a TV interview. (In one, the TV cameras block the view of the screaming newspaper headlines projected onto the back wall). Under George C. Wolfe's direction, no scene can just breathe. So most don't connect.
With a cast of 14, only two of whom are women, Ephron has effectively surrendered the stage to the guys, even admitting at one point through one of her female characters: "This is a story about guys, guys with cops, cops with guys. It's a very guy thing."
The women she does show are either a ball-busting, f-bomb spewing emasculator (a great Deirdre Lovejoy in two roles) or a sainted, calm, supportive spouse (a limp Maura Tierney as McAlary's wife.)
The dozen male actors swagger and bellow and carouse in various newsroom and cop roles. Some standouts: Courtney B. Vance is superb as one of McAlary's favorite editors, almost stealing the show from Hanks, no easy feat. Christopher McDonald also is elegant cool as McAlary's lawyer, and Peter Gerety is having entirely too much drunken fun onstage.
The script veers from one scene to the next, often without building tension or meaning. The inside-baseball nature of the story - filled with freewheeling references to the city's tabloid past and editors few may know - may confuse audience-members not in the business or New Yorkers.
There's a hysterical scene where both McAlary and his editor pump up their morphine drips while both at the hospital and another funny bit about the Atkins' diet. But there's also an unnecessarily noir funeral - complete with casket and a cliched umbrella - as well as a moving and excruciating monologue by Louima about his attack. Add to that various newsroom craziness and domestic squabbles between McAlary and his wife. They all stubbornly refuse to add up to much more than their parts.
After 16 scenes over two hours, McAlary emerges as a complex figure, both self-aggrandizing and yet also someone who genuinely seems to want to "right wrongs." He chased big paychecks as well as big stories, and Ephron seems to be bewitched by this lovable scamp. But the play leaves little lasting impression, like a day-old tabloid.
Tom Hanks made his Broadway debut Monday as legendary columnist Mike McAlary in Nora Ephron’s new play “Lucky Guy.”
The drama is a love letter to scruffy and scrappy New York City tabloids and one of its heroes who, like Ephron, lived large and died too soon of cancer.
Hanks, a Hollywood A-lister and two-time Oscar winner, delivers a colorful and compelling star turn as the Daily News Pulitzer Prize winner. Sporting a mustache and bracing gusto, Hanks looks the part and nails McAlary’s gutsy bravado and cocky bluster.
But although it’s heartfelt, the show is a hodgepodge. Long-winded and overly linear, it skates along on a just-the-facts-ma’am surface like a typical TV movie bio. The script was originally written for HBO.
Toggling between NYC newsrooms from 1985 to 1998, the story gives glimpses of McAlary’s life: Breakout stories on tainted Tylenol and corrupt cops; rising-star status and salary; a near-fatal car wreck; a career-threatening libel suit; and coverage of the Abner Louima case, which propelled him to the Pulitzer eight months before he died in 1998 at age 41.
At its best, the drama cracks with the smoky and gritty atmosphere Ephron knew firsthand from her own days as a reporter. Her signature wry humor bites, as when an editor is lovingly needled: “If you held the guy up to the light, you could see the olive.” That is 100-proof Ephron zing.
But she was still refining the work when she died in June, and too many styles are mashed together — direct addresses and jokes to the audience, monologues and dramatic re-creations.
Scenes with McAlary’s wife, long-suffering Alice (Maura Tierney), are boilerplate and corny. A chemotherapy scene is played for comedy. The lone moving scene comes when Louima (Stephen Tyrone Williams) tells of being tortured by cops, but this pivotal part of McAlary’s life is dispatched in an oddly quick fashion.
Director George C. Wolfe has assembled a fine ensemble to accompany Hanks, including Courtney B. Vance, Peter Gerety and Peter Scolari who respectively play fellow journalists Hap Hairston, John Cotter and Michael Daly.
But Wolfe’s staging doesn’t clarify or sort out the scattered episodes that unfold on David Rockwell’s set pieces. Dramatically and stylistically, there’s no thread or theme to make “Lucky Guy” reverberate universally.
Broadway audiences don’t seem to care. Hanks’ debut and Ephron’s death have made the play a hot-ticket event. How this play will resonate beyond the New York axis is a story that’s to be written.
Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy” is a eulogy. A really fun, really entertaining eulogy.
You may have heard that Tom Hanks, making his Broadway debut, is the star of the show — and he is, his Everyman-relatable charm coming through as strongly onstage as it does on-screen. But Ephron’s real focus isn’t a man but the end of hardboiled New York journalism.
This bioplay follows the rise and death of mustachioed star columnist Mike McAlary (Hanks), who worked at the three dailies competing for readers’ quarters in the 1980s and early ’90s: The Post, the Daily News and New York Newsday. The fourth doesn’t matter here: News editor Hap Hairston (Courtney B. Vance) dismisses the Times with, “This is a serious newspaper. F - - k it.”
Ephron finished “Lucky Guy” shortly before her death last June. That may partly explain the show’s sense of urgency as it rushes through McAlary’s career milestones in two tight hours. The professional and personal details are filled in by a Greek chorus of colleagues, including editor John Cotter (Peter Gerety) and columnist Michael Daly (Peter Scolari, Hanks’ old “Bosom Buddies” co-star).
The one outsider to this insular world is McAlary’s wife, Alice (Maura Tierney). Sketchy as the part is, it does allow for a memorable scene in which Alice lists, conductor-style, every stop on her LIRR line.
Even though Ephron came to embody romantic comedy via hits like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally,” she started in the trenches — she worked at The Post for five years in the ’60s. Her play doesn’t gloss over the newsmen’s warts: the clubby all-maleness, the boozing, the pursuit of “the wood” (journo slang for the Page One headline) at all cost.
But, as in her movies, Ephron isn’t interested in polemics. The show springs from her deep affection for the trade and its ink-stained wretches.
Making good use of projections and wheeled furniture, “Lucky Guy” barrels along as director George C. Wolfe (“The Normal Heart,” “Jelly’s Last Jam”) sets a frantic pace fit for this world of urgent deadlines and breaking news.
We career from story to story, with shorthand allusions to the era — Joey Buttafuoco, baggy pleated pants — and Ephron’s trademark quips. After McAlary learns he has the colon cancer that will eventually kill him in 1998, his lawyer and friend, Eddie Hayes (Christopher McDonald), says that “if we can just keep you alive for a few years, some Asian guy will find a cure.”
McAlary, who died at 41, made it long enough to land his final and biggest scoop, about a security guard named Abner Louima (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who was sodomized by two cops with a plunger in ’97. But that segment is over as soon as it starts, and you wish Ephron had developed it.
The Louima scandal was huge in New York, and it meant a lot to McAlary — it provided redemption after his mishandling of a Brooklyn rape case and earned him a Pulitzer.
As brief as the scene is, it segues nicely into the show’s coda, in which McAlary’s pals reprise the Irish song (“The Wild Rover”) they sang at the beginning. It’s a wake for a man, but also for a certain city and a certain profession.
“It must be true — it’s on television,” Hairston says after a broadcast announces the Louima cops’ arrest. “It’s the moment you know, if you didn’t already know, that it’s over. The newspaper business. The glory days.”
You can almost hear Ephron whisper, “Amen.”
If love were really all you need, Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy” would be the best show of the season, hands down. This fast-moving ink- and tear-stained portrait of the tabloid columnist Mike McAlary opened Monday night at the Broadhurst Theater, floating on a fathoms-deep reservoir of affection and good will, the likes of which back-stabbing Broadway seldom sees.
Well, of course. “Lucky Guy” is both an elegy and a valentine to a vanishing world held dear in the collective imagination of New Yorkers, that of the rough-and-tumble of big-city newsrooms and scoop-hungry reporters. The script has been written with a true fan’s glee and avidity by Ephron, one of the most personally popular figures in the media and entertainment industries, who was still working on it when she died at 71 last June.
Directed by the super showman George C. Wolfe, this production stars the two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, making an honorable Broadway debut. Mr. Hanks is one of the few enduring movie stars whose name is a byword not for sex appeal or power but for decency and likability. He and his wife, Rita Wilson, were close friends of Ephron, and they appeared at her memorial service to enact a dialogue between Ephron and her husband, the writer Nick Pileggi, as irresistibly enthusiastic conversationalists.
Add to this the fact that McAlary, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the chutzpah of which barroom legends are made, was only 41 when he died in 1998, and you have the makings of a first-class wake. Which is what, in the final analysis, “Lucky Guy” is — not so much a fully developed play or even a persuasive character study as a boisterous swapping of fond anecdotes about the end of a life and the end of an era.
Not that “Lucky Guy” is a crepe hanger. On the contrary, staged with the full bells-and-whistles treatment for which Mr. Wolfe is celebrated, the production exudes that same narrative excitability and grinning hyperbole that Mr. Hanks and Ms. Wilson brought to their performance at Ephron’s memorial. I was also reminded at times of the expletive-fueled, can-you-believe-this storytelling momentum of the Martin Scorsese movie “Goodfellas,” based on a book by Mr. Pileggi.
The problem is that if you know anything about McAlary — or even read the advance pieces on “Lucky Guy” in The New York Times — you may already know most of the stories told here. And despite the flashy camouflage provided by Mr. Wolfe, a crack technical team and a large and lively cast, “Lucky Guy” turns out to be little more than the sum of its anecdotes.
This is one production I wish I hadn’t researched at all, because whenever we were being set up for the recounting of another Crazy Mike (or Heroic Mike) story, I’d think eagerly, “Now, how are they going to handle this one?” But mostly the tale remained only a tale told, rarely acquiring the full dimensionality of a life lived.
With a pot-scrubber mustache and a drinker’s paunch, Mr. Hanks is always gamely and industriously present to act as an animated illustration for those tales. But he’s not given much room to be more, making this McAlary seem less like the protagonist of his life than like the passive recipient of reversals of fortune. The play’s title comes to seem almost too apt.
It is largely left to the other characters — a foul-mouthed Greek chorus of hard-drinking reporters and the occasional cop or lawyer — to give us the annotated version of Mike’s rise and fall and rise in the pages of New York Newsday, The New York Post and The Daily News, where his career reached its peak with his award-winning coverage of the Abner Louima case. They frequently remind us that truth is relative and that nothing described here is as black and white as it is in newsprint.
For example, we hear that Mike is conscience-stricken when a corrupt policeman he has interviewed kills himself after the article appears. We are also told that he certainly seems to enjoy the attendant publicity and milks it. But there is no relevant scene in which Mr. Hanks is allowed to embody this ambiguity.
That may be part of an attitude built into the structure of “Lucky Guy,” the notion that portraiture is only a collage of others’ perceptions and that we can never fully know the real person within. In plays like “Democracy” and “Copenhagen,” Michael Frayn has proved himself a master at finding the dramatic dynamic in this very point of view.
But “Lucky Guy” doesn’t entirely sustain the approach, any more than it does the fourth-wall-breaking camaraderie established between actors and audience in the early scenes. We follow Mike into the private sanctum of his bedroom, where his wife, Alice (a mild-mannered Maura Tierney), gently chastises and consoles him.
There is little friction or passion here, and Mr. Hanks’s Mike, with his professional persona set aside, registers as just a regular Joe with worries that furrow his brow. The final scenes, portraying Mike’s last days in a hospital, are heartbreaking, rendered with beautiful restraint by Mr. Hanks. But it’s an everyman’s death we’re witnessing, not that of a particular person we have come to know.
The most detailed glimpses we have of Mike are through the unreliable mirrors provided by other characters. His increasing lust for the lucre that comes with success is reflected in the man who arranges it for him, the lawyer Eddie Hayes (an enjoyably revved-up Christopher McDonald); his ambivalent friendships with his co-workers must be inferred less from anything Mike does or says than from the statements and performances of his mentors, played by excellent actors like Courtney B. Vance and Peter Gerety.
As designed by David Rockwell (sets), Toni-Leslie James (costumes) and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting), the show captures with verve the cigarette-and-whiskey-scented flavor of its period. This production features the wittiest use ever of a smoke machine. And the projections by Batwin & Robin Productions pungently summon the spirit of a world measured by the placement and type size of headlines.
Unlike some of the movies Ephron wrote and directed, and many of her peerlessly sharp essays, “Lucky Guy” often feels only newsprint deep. But as a love song to a fast-disappearing, two-fisted brand of journalism — a field in which she began her long and varied career — it has the heart and energy of the perpetually engaged, insatiably curious observer that Ephron never ceased to be.
“Go to the morgue and count the bodies,” the hard-boiled tabloid editor growls at the hungry young reporter. His point -- meant to be both morbid and inspirational -- is that everything between birth and death is "how you tell the story."
Telling the story is the giddy joy of "Lucky Guy," Nora Ephron's raucous and moving fact-based fiction, starring the spectacularly protean Tom Hanks, about the rise and fall and rise and death of superstar New York street columnist Mike McAlary.
In lesser hands, the body count behind George C. Wolfe's exhilarating production could drag the whole fragile construction into deep mourning. We not only have the 1998 cancer death of McAlary at 41, but Ephron's cancer death in June at 71 and, in the heart of her smart and snappy play, the critical condition of the thing being celebrated -- newspapers. Even the 1995 death of Newsday's New York paper, where many of these characters begin their self-referential tale, is part of the story.
Everyone around in the heyday of New York's tabloid wars, 1985-1998, will surely fight about the details -- not just the facts and the mythmaking, but why this one got included and that one left out. That's fair. Almost from the start of the fast-moving two hours, McAlary and his Greek chorus of newsroom buddies are jockeying for position as narrator as they talk directly to us.
At the center is Hanks, Ephron's longtime movie muse. Not onstage since the late '70s, Hanks brings all his cumulative comforting trustworthiness. This is invaluable, because Ephron does not sugarcoat too many of McAlary's uglier qualities.
Hanks, suitably transformed by McAlary's trademark mouse-brown mustache and bristly hair, begins the reporter's ascent with the self-delight of the kid in a grown-up body in "Big." Soon, his head gets too big. Then, as a libel case, a car accident and cancer eat away at him, his clothes get too big.
McAlary was heroic when he left a chemo treatment to cover the police abuse of Abner Louima all the way to a Pulitzer Prize. But McAlary is also reckless, self-aggrandizing and, without an enormously endearing actor in the role, very likely unlovable.
Maura Tierney does long-suffering with style as McAlary's neglected and supportive wife. Except for Deirdre Lovejoy as a lone woman reporter and as Debby Krenek (then Daily News editor, now Newsday's editorial director and senior vice president of digital media), this is journalism as a hard-drinking, competitive Irish boys' club.
As the only black member of the group, Courtney B. Vance has a punchy sardonic magnetism, as does Peter Gerety as the tough-talking older editor with the soft insides. Juggling the fast-talking chronicles are many recognizable bylines -- Jim Dwyer (Michael Gaston), Michael Daly (Peter Scolari) and Bob Drury (Danny Mastrogiorgio).
Wolfe and a laser-eyed creative team take control of our gaze with the rhythm and allure of a noir movie. David Rockwell's brilliantly inventive, sleek black-and-white sets make headline projections and sliding furniture look new again. Desks are seldom out of sight for these workaholics, even when they're at the bars.
In "Imaginary Friends," Ephron's grossly underrated 2002 Broadway play about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, Hellman says, "We're all just stories. The question is, who gets to tell them." How lucky, if that's not too paradoxical a word, that Ephron got to tell this one.
Leave it to Nora Ephron to write a play involving police brutality, cancer and one of the world's most famously cynical professions -- and make it a romantic comedy.
The hero of her swan song, Lucky Guy (* * * 1/2 out of four stars), which opened Monday at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, dies at the end, as do other men; but that's a mere technicality. In tracing the colorful, controversial career of the late journalist Mike McAlary, Ephron -- who lost her own battle with leukemia last year -- left us a work that is, in its way, as buoyantly entertaining and uplifting as the thinking women's (and men's) chick flicks that made her one of the most successful screenwriters of the late 20th century.
Guy's milieu is vastly different, and more testosterone-fueled, than that of When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless In Seattle, but it's one that Ephron knew: In the 1960s, she worked as a reporter at the New York Post, one of the tabloids where McAlary made his name two decades later.
The play is, in fact, a valentine to that world, as it was then -- before social media and the 24/7 news cycle -- and the city that was so much a part of it. If there are tinges of sentimentality, director George C. Wolfe and a robust cast led by Tom Hanks, in his Broadway debut, keep the tone appropriately gritty and the pace vigorous.
Ephron's dialogue requires the actors to verbally joust and parry with varying degrees of playfulness and aggression, as the characters, many of them sharing McAlary's vocation, endeavor to tell his story from their own perspectives. All aim to draw the audience in as they would a reader, often delivering their lines in boldface.
Were the players less skilled, the effect might be hokey, or exhausting; but supple veterans such as Peter Gerety and Courtney B. Vance, as editors who champion and clash with McAlary, are at once credible and magnetic as they shift from heated interaction to animated asides.
The actor whose name sits above the marquee proves equally adroit. McAlary, whose columns could be as unsparing on alleged crime victims as they were on rogue cops, made his share of professional and personal missteps; and Hanks shows us his capacity for arrogance and recklessness.
But the actor also makes McAlary's human fallibility part of his appeal, bringing to the role a crustier version of the unmannered charm that made Hanks one of Hollywood's most likable leading men. That's a key asset here, as something like it surely helped McAlary form the regular-guy bonds that fed his biggest scoops.
The real star of Lucky Guy, though, is the Manhattan of Ephron's young adulthood, and McAlary's: a seedy, mystical place, however idealized, where men did battle in Google-free newsrooms and bonded after hours in smoke-filled bars.
In the more sterile Times Square of 2013, that unlikely love story is a bracing tonic indeed.
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 C. 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.