Hanks Swaggers Into Broadway Stardom in ‘Lucky’: Review
By the end of “Lucky Guy,” you’re going to like Tom Hanks a lot more than Mike McAlary, the tabloid byline he plays with magnetic appeal in his Broadway debut.
That’s exactly as it’s meant to be. Hanks: Good-guy hero. McAlary: Hero, maybe. Good guy? Well, that’s the more complicated issue that Nora Ephron was getting at when she wrote this valentine to the New York tabloid wars of the 1980s and ’90s along with the reporter who best exemplified them.
Ephron, herself a recovering tabloid writer who went on to fame and fortune in Hollywood, died last June, just after signing Hanks (her star in “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail”) for the show.
Like any good newspaper story, the play opens in a bar. Highly lubricated reporters and editors, all male, are singing Irish drinking songs, stopping long enough to introduce themselves and the evening’s subject. “The question is, Where to begin?” one asks.
“Although we know how it ends,” says another, with a shrug.
Soon we’re in the East Side newsroom of New York Newsday, in 1985 a latecomer to the wars and dubbed “the tabloid in a tutu” by the rougher teams at the Daily News and the New York Post.
Recruited as a police reporter and stationed in the Queens bureau, McAlary chafes at boilerplate assignments that make him a regular on page 48.
Youthfully goofy, Hanks impersonates McAlary with uncanny ease: the curly hair and street-broom mustache, the lima-bean profile of his face and crinkling eyes that peered out from the sides of buses.
In time, his walk shifts from slouchily intimate to cocky and aloof -- and the embodiment of self-interest.
Under the gruff tutelage of managing editor John Cotter (the impish Peter Gerety) and city editor Hap Hairston (the dour Courtney B. Vance), McAlary cultivates police sources, shows a gift for getting unwilling people to talk and develops a pugnacious, street-smart style.
Breaking important stories about police corruption eventually wins him a daily column in the manner of his idol, Jimmy Breslin.
“Any story you’re on has only one real truth,” Cotter tells him. “Go to the morgue and count the bodies.”
And under the even more Svengali-like tutelage of Christopher McDonald’s bespoke lawyer Eddie Hayes (best known for his work on the Andy Warhol estate), McAlary becomes a tabloid mercenary.
“Lucky Guy” is not so much a play as it is a brief, and it’s been improved in subtle but significant ways by director George C. Wolfe.
He’s sharpened the dialogue and clarified the action from earlier drafts and injected the show with his signature adrenaline rush: Staccato flashes of the “wood” -- the newspaper term for headlines so big they had to be set in wooden type -- frame the witnesses telling the story of McAlary’s rise. Scenes change at a dizzying pace between bar and newsroom, newsroom and apartment.
Wolfe didn’t eliminate the tired cliches: Mention poor people, gaze toward the balcony. Mention the New York Times, blurt an expletive. The fine actress Maura Tierney is wasted as McAlary’s wife, Alice, for whom the term long-suffering seems understatement.
Credit set designer David Rockwell for mostly staying out of the director’s way with minimal furnishings, allowing Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer to establish atmosphere with meticulously varied lighting.
Leaving Newsday, McAlary jumps back and forth between the News and the Post, loyal only to the highest bidder as his price rose along with his ego, his sanctimony and his growing reliance on sources with agendas over shoe-leather reporting.
The inevitable fall from grace is a one-two punch: Drunk on the news of his latest $1 million deal, he nearly kills himself in a car crash. Soon after, McAlary mistakenly declares a rape in Brooklyn to have been a hoax.
But in Act II he’s granted a second shot and a now humbled McAlary comes through with the story of Abner Louima, an innocent black man gruesomely tortured by police. The Louima columns earn him a Pulitzer Prize, by which time he knows that cancer will soon kill him.
I was an editor at New York Newsday during McAlary’s rise and later got to know him in the final months of his life. Briefly mentioned in the play is that when he got sick, he began writing magazine stories; I was his editor on several of them at New York magazine.
By that time, pain and mortality and the burden of providing for a family he would soon be leaving had left him gracious, soft-spoken and open to learning once again, in this case how to write long-form journalism. We had some fun and the stories were superb. But his heart was in the newsroom of a daily newspaper with its cranks, malcontents and hustlers.
Having won his Pulitzer, McAlary delivers his self-effacing farewell speech to a newsroom shocked at his diminished state. The words are his, but -- especially as delivered with wrenching humility and humor by Hanks -- I was reminded of Lou Gehrig’s farewell in “Pride of the Yankees”: “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”
By this time, we’re with Broadway’s newest star all the way. Even as McAlary himself remains exposed but unexamined.
Through June 16 at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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