Hanks, the Hollywood star making his Broadway debut, is, after all, the reason Nora Ephron’s new play Lucky Guy, about New York City newspaper columnist Mike McAlary, made it to Broadway in the first place. What’s more, his chummy acknowledgement of his fans is perfectly in keeping with Ephron’s biographical drama — which is less a play than a series of barroom stories about one of the city’s most colorful journalists. McAlary was a brusque, streetwise reporter and columnist for (at one time or another) three different Gotham tabloids who broke stories of police corruption, won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the brutal police interrogation of Abner Louima and died of colon cancer in 1998 at age 41. Ephron, the journalist-novelist-filmmaker who herself died last year of cancer, originally wanted to make McAlary’s life story into a movie. She reported it like a good magazine story, and the material is rich enough for a brisk, book-length biography.
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But here it is on Broadway, a little uneasily. Much of the story is told, not shown — narrated by McAlary and various characters he crossed paths with, speaking directly to the audience. Chunks of dialogue simply mean nothing without any scenes to illustrate them (“He started out a little shaky at the News, but then he found a rhythm”). Cast members argue, cutely, over who gets to tell certain pieces of the story. After one character finishes a scene, she turns to the audience and says, “By the way, that is the end of me in this story,” before exiting the play, stage right.
Lucky Guy mostly wins us over in spite of all this, thanks to Ephron’s genuine love of her subject and her solid grounding in the nuts-and-bolts details of the world she chronicled. We’ve had so many amped-up, overglamorized versions of the news business in movies and on TV (like HBO’s ludicrously over-the-top The Newsroom) that it’s refreshing to see one with some real ink in its veins. Lucky Guy captures the hard-drinking, boys-club camaraderie, gets into the weeds of how reporters actually get people to talk and shows us the rivalries and egos and dubious ethics that are all part of the package. The strongest episode of Lucky Guy is McAlary’s biggest blunder: his mistaken story (based on faulty information from a police source) that a woman who claimed she was raped had fabricated her story. That led to a libel suit and seriously damaged his reputation.
Hanks, to his credit, soft-pedals his natural charm and creates an intelligent, well-rounded portrait: we see elements of the wastrel and the bully along with the dogged reporter. He is propped up by a terrific ensemble, especially Danny Mastrogiorgio as a fellow reporter who loses a key assignment to McAlary and resents him ever after, and Courtney B. Vance as his hotheaded but supportive editor, “Hap” Hairston. And they all flourish under George C. Wolfe’s brawny, high-energy direction.
In the end, maybe the stage is the ideal place for Lucky Guy: a celebration of old-fashioned tabloid journalism in the heart of the city’s other great indigenous and endangered industry, Broadway theater. “All I ever wanted to be was a reporter in New York City,” says McAlary. “You get to be at the center of everything.” He’s at the center again, in a play he would have loved — and I almost did.