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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Nora Ephron's new (and sad to say, last work) is funny, touching and, under George C. Wolfe's canny direction, marvelously theatrical. With Tom Hanks to play the title character, tabloid superstar columnist Mike McAlary, Lucky Guy is also one of the hottest tickets in town.
For a change the Hanks name on the marque is not just a case of cashing in on a celebrated name. This is a chance to see a film star who is as good in the flesh as on screen, and see him supported by a large ensemble, a rarity in these days when economics favor small casts. So consider yourself a lucky guy or gal if you nab a ticket during its limited run.
Essentially, Lucky Guy is a love story, but the passion we see unfold on the Broadhurst stage is for a profession. That profession is journalism, particularly as practiced by New York's tabloid reporters during the gritty 1980's whose drug of choice was tracking down a headline making scoop.
Both Lucky Guy's title character and its author loved journalism. Ephron spent five years as a New York Post reporter. Though she switched to magazine and screenplay writing, her memories of those guy-dominated, hard drinking newspaper days never lost the piquancy and nostalgic glow of an unforgettable first love affair. McAlary was a true blue newsman until his untimely death in 1998 at age 41.
Ephron and McAlary never met but his determined rise from outer boroughs reporter to highly paid Daily News columnist struck her as symbolic of the reporters whose belief in the power and glory that came with their job was unshakable. Her efforts to dramatize that story began more than a dozen years ago when the main thing she and McAlary had in common was their love for the life of newspaper journalists, especially if their beat was New York — that bottomless well of happenings with headline potential.
By the time Ephron went full steam forward with what had been an on and off venture that included extensive interviews with McAlary's colleagues, she too was mortally ill. McAlary was no longer just a charismatic character to use as a hook for her dramatic ode to a particular type and era of journalism but as a role model for a good death.
McAlary was battling advanced colon cancer but left a chemotherapy session to visit another hospitalized man, Abner Louima. His expose of Louima's torture by the police, won him a Pulitzer. In short he was a man who lived his dying days not as an invalid but doing what he loved. This became Ephron's template for dealing with her own illness and Lucky Guy is the result of that determination to die well.
You may find it hard to believe that a play by and about two people who died painfully and too soon can really escape being at least occasionally maudlin and depressing? But get a ticket and you'll see that even though it isn't a romantic comedy with an obligatory happy ending like Sleepless in Seattle (which also starred Hanks), it's imbued with Nora Ephron's wit and humor.
Sure it has the elements of a Greek drama, especially toward the end of the second act. The large ensemble, whose individual members frequently address the audience does indeed function as that genre's Greek chorus.But while Ephron's death is still fresh and painful to contemplate, even for those who knew her only through her witty essays and films, Lucky Guy is more in the story telling tradition of an Irish wake or a Jewish shiva where friends gather to share their remembrances.
Despite my praises, the play would probably not have made it to Broadway without Tom Hanks. Though considerably older than McAary was during th period covered in the play, he captures the man's driving ambition and bluster without losing the nice guy quality that's made him a Hollywood super star. The role may just win him a Tony to put next to his Oscars.
Undoubtedly Hanks is the ticket selling magnet, the seventeen other actors add atmosphere and color. Though the macho world the play recreates features only two females both make strong impressions. Maura Tierney is very fine as McAlary's strong and loving wife Alice. Deirdre Lovejoy gets to play two characters, first an amusing tough as nails lone reporter in the all guy newsroom and later as an editor. While all the men individualize the real real life characters, Courtney B. Vance and Christopher McDonald are particularly memorable, Vance as the often volatile black editor Hap Hairston and McDonald as Eddie Hayes, the lawyer who "can get you out of anything."
George C. Wolfe and his design team deserve much of the credit for the authenticity and flair of this production which often feels like the film it was first intended to be. Wolfe also keeps the the frequent audience addressing from slowing the pace. In fact, the two hours of go by at the ssme high speed and that made Nora Ephron fall in love with journalism.
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