April 2, 2013
Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy” is a eulogy. A really fun, really entertaining eulogy.
You may have heard that Tom Hanks, making his Broadway debut, is the star of the show — and he is, his Everyman-relatable charm coming through as strongly onstage as it does on- screen. But Ephron’s real focus isn’t a man but the end of hardboiled New York journalism.
This bioplay follows the rise and death of mustachioed star columnist Mike McAlary (Hanks), who worked at the three dailies competing for readers’ quarters in the 1980s and early ’90s: The Post, the Daily News and New York Newsday. The fourth doesn’t matter here: News editor Hap Hairston (Courtney B. Vance) dismisses the Times with, “This is a serious newspaper. F–– k it.”
Ephron finished “Lucky Guy” shortly before her death last June. That may partly explain the show’s sense of urgency as it rushes through McAlary’s career milestones in two tight hours. The professional and personal details are filled in by a Greek chorus of colleagues, including editor John Cotter (Peter Gerety) and columnist Michael Daly (Peter Scolari, Hanks’ old “Bosom Buddies” co-star).
The one outsider to this insular world is McAlary’s wife, Alice (Maura Tierney). Sketchy as the part is, it does allow for a memorable scene in which Alice lists, conductor-style, every stop on her LIRR line.
Even though Ephron came to embody romantic comedy via hits like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally,” she started in the trenches — she worked at The Post for five years in the ’60s. Her play doesn’t gloss over the newsmen’s warts: the clubby all-maleness, the boozing, the pursuit of “the wood” (journo slang for the Page One headline) at all cost.
But, as in her movies, Ephron isn’t interested in polemics. The show springs from her deep affection for the trade and its ink-stained wretches.
Making good use of projections and wheeled furniture, “Lucky Guy” barrels along as director George C. Wolfe (“The Normal Heart,” “Jelly’s Last Jam”) sets a frantic pace fit for this world of urgent deadlines and breaking news.
We career from story to story, with shorthand allusions to the era — Joey Buttafuoco, baggy pleated pants — and Ephron’s trademark quips. After McAlary learns he has the colon cancer that will eventually kill him in 1998, his lawyer and friend, Eddie Hayes (Christopher McDonald), says that “if we can just keep you alive for a few years, some Asian guy will find a cure.”
McAlary, who died at 41, made it long enough to land his final and biggest scoop, about a security guard named Abner Louima (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who was sodomized by two cops with a plunger in ’97. But that segment is over as soon as it starts, and you wish Ephron had developed it.
The Louima scandal was huge in New York, and it meant a lot to McAlary — it provided redemption after his mishandling of a Brooklyn rape case and earned him a Pulitzer.
As brief as the scene is, it segues nicely into the show’s coda, in which McAlary’s pals reprise the Irish song (“The Wild Rover”) they sang at the beginning. It’s a wake for a man, but also for a certain city and a certain profession.
“It must be true — it’s on television,” Hairston says after a broadcast announces the Louima cops’ arrest. “It’s the moment you know, if you didn’t already know, that it’s over. The newspaper business. The glory days.”
You can almost hear Ephron whisper, “Amen.”