Apr 2, 2013
Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy is a profane love letter to the lost, rollicking world of New York tabloid journalism. It is also a tribute to its real-life fallen son, the brash reporter Mike McAlary, who received the Pulitzer prize for his muckraking exposures of the New York police department shortly before he died of cancer aged 41. Tom Hanks, sporting a red tint in his hair and a bottlebrush that some might call a moustache, plays McAlary for this, his Broadway debut, striding the Broadhurst stage like a brazen colossus in a series of bad suits.
The play spans 1985 to 1998 and a gritty, murder-riven New York barely recognisable today. It charts McAlary’s rise from lowly hack to star columnist. It also shows several career lows – tawdry squabbles with colleagues, a drink-driving accident, the gross mishandling of a rape case.
Simple arithmetic suggests that as the play follows McAlary from the age of 28 until his early death, Hanks, who is 56, is somewhat odd casting. He’s not nearly so flexible an actor as the theatre pros – such as Peter Gerety and the superb Courtney B Vance – who surround him. Yet, his stardom prevails. With help from the wig shop, he bears a strong physical resemblance to McAlary and his performance, if somewhat unnuanced, is robust and consistent.
You can’t always say the same of Ephron’s script. She has a lively sense of the caffeine-addled cut and thrust of newsroom life, and can make you very nearly weepy for the past triumphs of the tabs, even as she shows what a closed, testosterone-heavy world they occupied. “This is a story about guys,” the one female reporter (Deirdre Lovejoy) complains, “guys with cops, cops with guys. It’s a very guy thing.”
But the scenes between McAlary and his long-suffering wife Alice (a staunch Maura Tierney) seem airlifted from a duller play. More troublingly, Ephron never really demonstrates what made McAlary worthy of Broadway hagiography. We hear repeatedly that he could get anyone to talk to him, that sources trusted him, that his writing had guts and panache, but we never really see it. This is not to question McAlary’s talent, but to suggest that the play ought to show rather than merely tell bar-room tales.
Under George C Wolfe’s dynamic direction, you can forgive writerly weakness. Wolfe keeps the action humming like a floor of printing presses working overtime. He makes even inconsequential events seem grave, and wrings every bourbon-soaked drop from the Greek chorus of fellow newspapermen Ephron wisely provides. Despite everything we know about the demise of print media and the scandals that pervade it, Ephron and Wolfe really make you believe, at least for the play’s two-hour running time, that journalism, as McAlary says, isn’t “the oldest job in the world, but it’s the best job in the world.”