Tom Hanks, Lucky Guy. Not So Lucky Play by the Late, Marvelous Nora Ephron.
Tom Hanks is a phenomenal human being and actor. Many would be proud to have him as a friend. Helping Nora Ephron mount her play, Lucky Guy, is a tribute to her and to him. They are to be credited and although it has not been made crystal clear, most likely they discussed and worked on the play at length before she was struck down by her illness. For the most part, I write reviews that are supportive of the arts. I understand that every attempt made at producing and promoting a production whether on or off Broadway is a labor of love that engenders a very long process over hurdles, obstacles, nay-sayers and grouchy money lenders and enthusiastic investors. I acknowledge and appreciate. the courage, brilliance and perseverance it takes to present an artistic endeavor which could fall or succeed depending upon so many variables that sometimes it is impossible to calculate the why, the if and the how.
Lucky Guy will not fall on its face because Tom Hanks’ presence in New York City in a live performance will draw tony crowds willing to pay $400 for premium seats and Hanks’ buddy celebrities who will come to support him through rain, sleet, snow and desert temperatures, and who may have been comped to be seen in the audience. Others living in New York will purchase the “hot” ticket, though they may never have worked or buddied up with Hanks, just to see this renown and beloved movie actor on Broadway. Certainly, the little people and fans will pay big money for the rafter seats to catch a glimpse of Forest Gump, the Oscar winning actor and the producer who has a fine eye for humorous talent exemplified when he backed little known comedian Nia Vardalos by producing a little film with a big heart, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
The promoters know of Hanks’ draw capability by his track record box office. So if the play is less than sterling, if the plot is convoluted, chopped, contrived, unfocused and completely un-Ephronesque, if the sign offs from McAlary’s family were hushed and pressed, will the audience care? No. They are there to see an exhibition, a show, the glitz and the fun. They are not expecting great writing at this point, and since they are coming for all the other reasons and not to see a marvelous story, they will not be disappointed. They might be rather surprised that the play doesn’t cohere and that it shifts after the intermission toward a completely different focus, but that will not cool them from enjoying the evening. Why? Hanks is true to form. He rises to the occasion. He makes the thin, stereotyped, fictionalized characterization of the brilliant and courageous newspaper reporter Mike McAlary believable, likable and intensely human with yeomen’s help from an exceptional supporting cast, beautifully acted by Courtney B. Vance, Richard Masur, Christopher McDonald, Maura Tierney, Peter Gerety and Deirdre Lovejoy and aptly directed by George C. Wolfe.
Lucky Guy is about the arc of success for Mike McAlary: his influences, his exuberance, his integrity, his passion and the conflicting loves of his life, his wife and his reportage and status as a columnist when he worked for New York City Newsday, The Daily News and The New York Post. Yet Lucky Guy also purports to be about the the men, McAlary’s editors, specifically Mike Daly and Hap Hairston with whom he worked closely and who supposedly knew him best. As an iteration of these newspapermen it also shows snippets of New York City and the three New York tabloids during the 1980s and 1990s.
Ephron took on an ambitious challenge compressing McAlary’s story as a newspaperman, using the narrators-editors and newspaper people and his wife to bridge the enactments of seminal events in McAlary’s life. Whether the abortive conception of McAlary as a man whose star skyrocketed too quickly in bombastic, self-possessed glory that could only result in a plummet, Icarus-like to the earth, or whether the sheer weight of the attempt at compression of the hundreds of moments of a true life story caved in on itself (without using symbolic, representational short cuts of revelation to assist in the telling) the ride became chopped and grinding. At best it was ill conceived and at worst it was a flatliner that catapulted into nowhere land. The dialogue witty and clever at times, reveals Ephron’s turn of phrase and humor. As for the excitement, thrill and edginess of the newspaper business? It was lost in the retelling through the selection of events and perceptions of the editors which decreased the vitality of what were fascinating and complex decades in New York City’s history.
The irony is that the urgency to chronicle the story truncated the spirit of the truth of these individuals, especially McAlary and the editors. This wobbly “truth” webs an obscurity that minimizes their very real conflicts with themselves and each other. This in turn skews the focus and redirects the play in the second act toward hyper-resolution as McAlary wins the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Abner Louima case. At this high and low point of his life, Ephron shows his humility in accepting the prize (which strangely appears like a mea culpa speech to his colleagues) and his resignation as his cancer battle overwhelms him. This battle in the play’s unfolding almost appears as a judgment on his life which it shouldn’t. The play lamely concludes with the recognition of the birth and death years of the two editors and McAlary projected on the screen as the men stand before us in a tableau. For a second, I was left feeling like this was a theater of the absurd Pinteresque let down, “That’s all there is folks?” What? Wasn’t this play about McAlary as the focus? Or was it about the editors? Was it about the last choking song of New York’s tabloid newspapers? Clouds swirled around my understanding making me feel that both the playwright and director were unsure about an effective ending and ran out of steam. Incongruency. The play was unable to hold together the line of events that were so urgently chronicled.
As I stared at the dates, I felt a dull thud of “ho hum,” when I should have felt a lightening jolt of recognition that the era of newspaper tabloid reporting had ended with these individuals and would never return again; that greats like McAlary were precious, rare talents, their flaws having enriched their work. The preciousness did not come through in Ephron’s least satisfying endeavor. What did come through was Hanks’ presence and being despite the muddled plot and characterization. Hanks’ acting skills injected every ounce of spiritual strength and humanity into Ephron’s words. Hanks breathed life into a wooden, thinly written Mike McAlary. The cast were true to their best efforts and allowed us to envision what these living individuals might have been like at this time and place. Was the memory of McAlary served by Hanks? Absolutely. But the play was not a vehicle to introduce or remind us of McAlary’s genius. Unfortunately, it muted and veiled the artistry and the power of his legacy, and most likely it did the same for the other individuals who lived and breathed newsprint onstage.
Call it a problem with plot, selection of events and perceptions. Say it was too ambitious a task to try to cover his journalistic career and life during that time. Call it a problem of how the truth of McAlary the man was cobbled together through interviews, newspaper articles and editorials, etc.,and spun. Call it what you will, the play was uneven, misshapen. Hanks has been quoted as saying that the play is a fictionalized account of McAlary. Well, fictionalized would have been vastly more entertaining with great opportunities for extrapolation and flexibility of story telling. The identities and names could have been masked and the story better wrought; it could have been simplified to parable level or made more mythic. Or it could have been made more real, refocused on the relationship between McAlary and his wife which would have been an enhancement. Somehow, their love never resonated as it should have. And this wasn’t the fault of the actors, but rather in the thinly drawn interaction between them.
To accommodate Hanks, McAlary’s age was tweaked. The man died at 41. To say his life was cut short is an understatement. To say that his wife and children were bereft without him is another understatement. To say that he accomplished a tremendous amount in the years he had is another understatement for he wrote novels and screenplays and consulted on films. McAlary was a dynamo, beloved to his wife, relatives and friends, an amazing personality a newspaper man of the old school who adored his work. Indeed he adored life and wanted to live it to the fullest. He did, but his season for living was brief. And this is the tragedy with which all can identify. This is the story, and what a story.
But how do you put this in words and get it all in? You render it as legend; he’s an Odysseus, a hero, a champ, a newspaperman we can love. You create an independent narrator, one not involved as a character, one who has an overarching view who selects the crucial events that brought the man higher on his soul journey. Then you reveal what he has learned and what he has carved for himself out of the roughness of youth into a wisdom borne out of love, loyalty to his passion, trial and suffering. You show the nobility of the time through this narrator’s eyes, revealing the horror that has increased in the decades as a precursor to the new prowling terrorism of war on American soil. Then the focus is clear. Then the years of McAlary’s birth and death make sense in context. Then we understand their value and can say, here was a great newspaperman who captured the era with the dynamism of his reporting and we shall mourn an era that we’ll never see the likes of again.
Lucky Guy is at the Broadhurst Theater.