“You’re born, you die. Everything between is subject to interpretation,” according to one of the journalists in Lucky Guy, the affectionately nostalgic biography of New York City reporter and columnist Mike McAlary currently in performances at the Broadhurst Theater.
Written by the late Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks in his Broadway debut, Lucky Guy gives a tongue-in-cheek staging of McAlary’s career and meteoric rise through tabloid journalism. Directed by George C. Wolfe, the play gives a gentle look at a bygone era of journalism, when the (almost all male) groups of reporters would carouse at Irish bars and conduct interviews in person, while taking notes by hand on steno pads. Softened by nostalgia and strategically placed humor, Lucky Guy is a biography-lite play, rooted by a strong performance by Hanks, who is making his first stage appearance in 30 years.
“It was a grand and glorious time to be in the tabloids,” one of the men onstage informs the audience. The supporting cast members narrate much of the show, utilizing a gag of describing what is happening throughout the play, a technique which results in many laughs. When a new character is introduced, one actor asks the rest, “Who wants to play Eddie Hayes?” And another time, when one of the actors walks offstage, she informs the audience, “And by the way, that is the end of me in this story.” (But I think my favorite gag took place when, after informing the audience what year it was, the man with the smoke machine who had helpfully created the mood in the earlier scenes prior to the smoking ban, was yelled at to get offstage.)
It is in the middle of this narration that Hanks enters the stage, energetic and eager, playing McAlary in the beginning of his career, when he was youthful and ambitious and hoping to prove himself. Hanks, who is 56, is not completely believable in these scenes as a 20-something go-getter, but his devotion to the role is apparent, and he gives an impressively solid performance. It is unusual to see the resident Good Guy of movies swearing and drinking excessively onstage, but Hanks’ innately earnest, nice-guy attitude rounds out the character of McAlary, who is written mainly to be a narcissistic, obsessively ambitious man whose wife and family are swept to the side for most of the show.
McAlary’s wife Alice is played by Maura Tierney, who gives a warm performance in a very limply written role. Aside from narrating their early courtship and occasionally fighting with her husband about how late he stays out, Alice is given little to do in the play other than, literally, stand by McAlary’s side. As one of the men says at the beginning of the play, “This is a story about guys, guys with cops, cops with guys. It’s a very guy thing.” That is apparent in a cast of 14, only two of whom are women. Along with Tierney, Deirdre Lovejoy fills two roles as women in the newsroom, one of whom is written as an obsessively swearing emasculating reporter and the other as an editor who makes one of the most important decisions in McAlary’s career.
The lack of development of the women in Lucky Guy is disappointing and surprising, considering Ephron’s career of writing thoughtful movies that appeal to intelligent women. Yes, Lucky Guy is about a man in a male-dominated profession, and much of his life involved his peers, but the role of his wife is written to be supportive and…little else. She encourages him to follow his instincts and when he questions his judgment after a policeman commits suicide following the publication of an interview with him, Alice tells McAlary, “If you wrote too much it’s because he said too much.” It is Alice who encourages McAlary to follow up on a tip regarding the police sodomy of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant brutally sodomized with a mop handle by racist cops, for which McAlary wins the Pulitzer Prize. But, despite Tierney’s solid presence onstage, the character of Alice is never more than a postscript in this play.
While Lucky Guy is a story of success, it is also a somber tale of a man whose life is cut short too soon. Mike gets into a car accident driving while drunk, which ends Act One, and in Act Two he is diagnosed with cancer, which he died of in 1998 at the age of 41. It also inspires reflection on the journalism industry, where Ephron began her career as a mail girl at Newsweek. David Rockwell’s sets utilize projections of headlines and videos of a by-gone era of reporting, which no longer exists (and I was painfully reminded of this while people’s iPhones rang frequently throughout the show.) Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting enhances the film-noir aspects of the show, while Toni-Leslie James’ costumes firmly establish the time period (especially the sneakers and suit skirt worn by Lovejoy in the 1980s scenes.)
McAlary’s devotion to his craft is somewhat elevated at times; I rolled my eyes when he declared that he was doing “God’s work” and a former colleague chastised him for selling out, saying, “You’re the voice of the people!” But it was refreshing – and even a thrill for this former journalism school student – to hear the process of fact-checking at a major newspaper discussed rather than simply typing a tweet and sending it into the blogosphere.
Playing McAlary’s colleagues and friends are Peter Gerety as John Cotter, Courtney B. Vance as Hap Hairston, Christopher McDonald as Eddie Hayes, McAlary’s flamboyant lawyer. Danny Mastrogiorgio, Peter Scolari, Richard Masur, and Brian Dykstra also join the ranks as various roles, all playing the men behind McAlary.
Whether McAlary’s ego is being inflated by these men (and it does become gargantuan as the two major tabloids of New York each try to outbid each other for him) or he is being brought back down to earth by his misfortunes, his character is performed vividly by Hanks, who would be welcome back onstage in another, perhaps more thoroughly written, play. While the presence of a movie star on Broadway is sometimes met with frustration, could Tom Hanks ever be unlikable? To quote the robust Irish drinking song that opens and closes the show, “No, nay, never!”