May 15, 2013

"Lucky Guy" Showcases Good Guy Tom Hanks

Even if Nora Ephron hadn’t written it and Tom Hanks weren’t starring in it, Lucky Guy would probably be a hit.  For the play, now running at the Broadhurst Theatre, tells the story of the late New York Post columnist Mike McAlary and is set in the then-high-flying journalism world of the ‘90s. Every reporter I know (and I know a lot of them) has been going to see the show and to relive, at least for a couple of hours, a time when memories of Woodward and Bernstein’s bringing down a president were still fresh, ad-fat magazines were paying big fees for stories and it was just cool to be in the news business.

Ephron, who died last summer, got a job at the Post straight out of college in the early '60s, later married three journalists and, as she says in a posthumous program note, loved journalism. This is her paean to the profession and it is fun to see her unabasedly rose-tinted version of those old glory days on onstage.
The story she tells is a fairly conventional bio-drama. It unspools as a series of anecdotes (drawn from interviews Ephron did with the real-life people who populate the play) about McAlary’s career.  

The tales about McAlary track his days as a rookie beat reporter right through his success as a columnist who specialized in writing about cops and crime, which culminated in a Pulitzer Prize for his exposing the story of Abner Louima, the Haitian security guard brutalized and sodomized with the handle of a bathroom plunger by Brooklyn cops.

The play both begins and ends with a wake in a bar for McAlary, who died from colon cancer at just 41.  The fact that Ephron wrote those scenes while facing her own imminent death (a fact she kept secret from all but a few family and friends) makes them all the more poignant.
But, alas, there’s no real dramatic tension in Lucky Guy. Some critics have also complained that the show is too insidey and of little interest to people who lack Ephron's (and my) passion for journalism

For the record, my husband K, a non-journalist and a notoriously picky theatergoer, like the show a lot. On the other hand, my college roommate, a one-time actress, and her economist husband in from the coast for a visit, liked it less.  

Ephron might have fixed some of the problems had she lived but now we’ll never know how. Luckily, director George C. Wolfe, a friend of Ephron’s, has staged the show with great energy, imagination and wit. His efforts are ably supported by the mood-enhancing video projections designed by Batwin + Robin Productions.

Wolfe has also put together what is arguably the best ensemble of the season. Even small parts are played by terrific character actors like Peter Gerety, Richard Masur and Peter Scolari.
But the first among equals in the 17-member supporting cast are Christopher McDonald who captures the dapper flamboyance of the master fixer Eddie Hayes, who was McAlary’s close friend; and Courtney B. Vance, whose nuanced performance as McAlary’s frequent editor Hap Hairston has earned him a deserved Tony nomination. 

Of course, I’d expected those experienced stage vets to be good.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the show’s star Tom Hanks.  So I’m delighted to be able to report that Hanks, who is making his Broadway debut and hasn’t appeared on any stage in 30 years, gives a terrific performance that totally merits the Tony nomination he got (Click here to read a piece about his preparation for the role).

Hanks needs none of the grading on a curve that is sometimes used for Hollywood arrivistes. He commands the stage with natural ease.  He is funny (Ephron’s script crackles with her customary humor) and touching and I’m beginning to think that Hanks may be the best actor we’ve got in this country in any medium.
After the show, K and I walked over to our favorite theater district hangout for a late supper. A few minutes later Hanks arrived and joined a table near ours.  Celebrities seem to like the place as much as K and I do and over the years we’ve seen many famous people holding forth there as their companions paid deferential attention.
But Hanks listened just as much as he talked, living up to his rep as one of Hollywood—and now Broadway’s—truly good guys.  He’s truly good in Lucky Guy too and, if you’re lucky (most performances are sold out) you can catch him and the show before its extended run ends on July 3.

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