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Theater review by David Cote. Broadhurst Theatre (see Broadway). By Nora Ephron. Dir. George C. Wolfe. With Tom Hanks. 2hrs. One intermission.
I never knew Mike McAlary. I never read Mike McAlary. For me, in the ’90s, the only time I touched the grubby Daily News or New York Post was browsing a discarded edition on the L en route to Williamsburg. This self-respecting bohemian snob wouldn’t normally be caught dead reading such sleazy rags. So I was never acquainted with the moustachioed tough-guy columnist who barked and snarled from smeary pages about cops both crooked and heroic. However, in August of 1997, I did hear about Abner Louima and the plunger. That’s because McAlary did his job. The man and his dirty, warty profession are riotously toasted in Lucky Guy, Nora Ephron’s shrewd, foul-mouthed, ink-stained portrait of big-city tabloid journalism.
Ephron started Lucky Guy as a screenplay about the rocketing career and premature end of McAlary, who died of colon cancer at age 41 in 1998 after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Louima case. In a life-imitating-art-imitating-life Möbius strip you already know, Ephron finished this stage version before losing her own battle with cancer last June. Whatever condition the text was in when director George C. Wolfe and his cast started rehearsals, the production that just opened at the Broadhurst is tight and swaggering, hopped up on postdeadline mania and the cocky adrenaline of a New York play about ambition, crime and the truth. The play starts with a group of newsmen in a bar, downing whiskey and beer, slurring lustily through the Irish folk tune “The Wild Rover.” That pretty much sums up this world: sodden with sentiment, sloppy with machismo and camaraderie.
Speaking of camaraderie, the Hollywood icon playing McAlary—Tom Hanks—is giving a performance of surpassing generosity and heart. Hanks burns with charisma but is warmly integrated with the ensemble (the terrific bunch of character actors includes Danny Mastrogiorgio, Peter Scolari, Peter Gerety and a delightfully Runyonesque Christopher McDonald). Perhaps because of Hanks’s ability to be simultaneously bumptious and self-effacing, he seems to have been playing this part, with this cast, in this production, for months already. The guys get along great—even when cursing each other out on the newsroom floor or brawling drunkenly over who still has street cred. There are women in the story, too: McAlary’s loyal and patient wife, Alice (Maura Tierney) and Deirdre Lovejoy playing a couple of tough-willed newswomen. But mainly, as Ephron makes explicit early on and with no apologies, this is a guys’ story.
And what a guy. McAlary is one of the more complex characters Hanks has played in years, an arrogant upstart who outbullied Jimmy Breslin in print. McAlary chased money and glory, and drank his way to an early stroke. He defended the downtrodden; then, in the 1994 “Jane Doe” rape case in Prospect Park, suggested that the rape was a hoax—based on incomplete information fed to him by the police. (A subsequent lawsuit against McAlary was dismissed, but the columnist comes across as unrepentant and callous.) Interestingly, it is by covering another act of sexual violence—the sodomizing of Louima by cops—that McAlary redeems his name.
Wolfe stages the play—propelled by direct-address narration from McAlary’s fellow journos (forming a kind of f-bomb–dropping Greek chorus)—at a furious clip. Split scenes, video projection and rapid cuts bridge the stylistic gap between the movie this material started as and the scrappy, vibrant urban drama it became. The hero of this latter-day Front Page died at the cusp of a new age, one of news aggregators, blogs and camera phones—not to mention plummeting ad dollars and circulation numbers. He and his fellow media dinosaurs didn’t live to see what a bloodless hash the Internet would make of city news. Maybe they are the lucky ones.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote