This theater image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows Tom Hanks as tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, center left, during a performance of “Lucky Guy,” playing at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — 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.