NEW YORK — The late Nora Ephron left an interesting, albeit flawed, play about New York tabloid columnist Mike McAlary. On paper, the drama must seem somewhat contrived and semi-cinematic. Ephron tells the journalist’s story through a series of vignettes that are similar to a movie’s quick pacing and rhythm. We see McAlary at home with his wife. We see McAlary at the bar with his journo buddies. We see McAlary with his lawyer, trying to secure a six-figure contract.
Ephron’s words make for an enjoyable evening. That’s about it.
But why is the production at the Broadhurst Theatre in midtown Manhattan so riveting and pulsating? It’s probably because Tom Hanks is making his Broadway debut as McAlary, and the great, great George C. Wolfe is serving as captain of this vessel. The two take Ephron’s script — I mean play — and elevate it to beautifully resonant heights.
Hanks, perhaps our generation’s best film actor, throws his entire body into the role. From his mustachioed face to his hand gestures to his accent, this feels like a character pulled from the newsrooms of the 1980s. McAlary, who died in the 1990s after winning the Pulitzer Prize, left behind a legacy of articles and columns that no doubt influenced Hanks’ portrayal. He wrote with conviction, and that’s exactly how the actor recreates him on stage. He stood up for those with no voice. He went after the top brass. He ruffled many feathers, and he also endured professional setbacks. He’s the total package, flaws and all, and Hanks embodies him with a believability and assuredness that is quite startling for a Broadway debut.
The actors around McAlary are equally impressive. From Maura Tierney as McAlary’s wife Alice to Courtney B. Vance as editor Hap Hairston, the Greek chorus that surrounds this central tragic figure helps to set the tone and enliven the atmosphere of this unique time in New York City’s history. The best of the ensemble is Peter Gerety as John Cotter, one of McAlary’s editors. He plays him like an Irish good ole boy, someone who worked hard during the day and then put in his requisite time at the bars at night. There’s one scene between Cotter and McAlary where they wax philosophic about their time in the field of journalism. Gerety’s character attempts a poor Humphrey Bogart impression, and through his giggles and pondering, we are given a simultaneous portrait of hurt and humor.
Wolfe is the ring leader of them all, and he overshadows some of the flaws in Ephron’s writing. First off, Lucky Guy’s format is borderline impossible to pull off. Characters address the audience directly (a fourth wall cannot be found in the Broadhurst), and actors compete to play some of the secondary roles. This doesn’t sound like the best of ideas, but somehow Wolfe makes it work. He ensures the cast puts a speed and ferocity into their lines, so much so that the alcohol-induced bar dialogue sounds like genuine conversations over too many drinks. The director also adds some theatricality for the chapter headings of McAlary’s life, including a near-fatal car crash. A projector screen is also put to good use. Wolfe has more creativity in one scene of Lucky Guy than most directors have throughout an entire production. Case in point: To recreate the smoke-filled newsroom of the 1980s, the characters call on a backstage helper to start pumping fumes from a smoke machine.
The sentimental Irish songs that bookend the two-hour play are not copouts to have us feel sorry for McAlary. Instead, they feel well-earned, as if this host of characters deservedly would embrace life through rhythm and lyrics that summed up their journalistic calling.
The story of McAlary is a complicated one, and it probably doesn’t jump out as source material for a Broadway show. Ephron saw the potential, and Wolfe, Hanks and company sealed the deal.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Written by Nora Ephron
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Starring Tom Hanks, Maura Tierney, Courtney B. Vance, Christopher McDonald, Peter Gerety and Peter Scolari
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Currently playing the Broadhurst Theatre at 235 W. 44th St. in Manhattan. Click here for more information.