NEW YORK – It’s fitting that Nora Ephron’s swan song, the play “Lucky Guy,” calls the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street home. The venue, which has played host to productions of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” over its century-long history, sits around the corner from the old New York Times Building that housed the operations of the Gray Lady for 94 years. And Ephron’s play, while an account of the rise, fall and vindication of New York journalist Mike McAlary, is just as much a celebration of the profession the author, filmmaker and playwright once called her own.
The production is also Tom Hanks’s Broadway debut, indeed, his first foray into theater since a (literal) college try over 30 years ago. And the rare air of a $1.1 million week of previews (fourth only to massive musicals “The Book of Mormon,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked”) owes plenty to that fact, hordes of people crowding around the theatre exit and across the street in front of the Helen Hayes Theatre to catch a glimpse of the star after each show. It’s the perfect project for someone of his stature, a lovely ode to his co-collaborator on the films “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” and perhaps the best thing the late Ephron ever wrote.
The piece was originally conceived as a teleplay for HBO over a decade ago, but Ephron could never reconcile her chosen device of telling McAlary’s story through the recollections of colleagues. But it’s a perfect fit on the stage, Hanks, Maura Tierney, Courtney B. Vance, Christopher McDonald and Hanks’s old “Bosom Buddies” co-star Peter Scolari (among others) breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience throughout. But when Ephron revisited it with the stage in mind a few years ago, she had something else to bring to it: an intimate knowledge of staring death in the face, as McAlary did when diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997.
Ephron, who died in June of 2012 from pneumonia complicated by the acute myeloid leukemia with which she had been diagnosed in 2006, never knew McAlary herself, but she certainly knew his ilk. She was a reporter herself at the New York Post in the early-1960s and married Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein not long after he and his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward broke perhaps the biggest story of the 20th Century. She even had a hand in an unused rewrite of William Goldman’s draft of “All the President’s Men,” which led to her career as a screenwriter.
Finally getting around to it, McAlary’s story is rather epic. Beginning as an upstart shoe-leather beat reporter eager to hit the pavement and land scoops, he rose through the ranks of the New York news world in the crack-addled late-1980s. Inspired by titans of the trade such as Jimmy Breslin, he broke story after story of police corruption in the city, among other things, before becoming one of the highest paid journalists in the country in 1993 with a lucrative New York Post contract that brought him nearly $1 million over three years. Other publications like the New York Daily News and Newsday were bidding for the guy; his stuff was that good. And, similar to Ephron’s early dabbling in screenwriting, his novelization of the screenplay “Copland” — which he wrote in order to inject some truth into a narrative he found intriguing — reportedly caused some tweaking of the finished product. (For a more thorough primer, Broadway.com has a list of 10 things you should know about him.)
McAlary was a mensch, by all accounts. But there was a nebulous quality that the play attempts to reconcile with the various recollections from colleagues (and which a 2011 Off-Broadway play, “The Wood,” tried to address as well). To get to such a place, particularly in the world of journalism, you have to be dogged. You have to have ambition and an eye out for number one. Ephron’s work on the page goes there somewhat. The problem is Hanks’s performance never really does. At least personally speaking, it never allows you to dislike him when you probably ought to. It might be because he’s been such a beacon of decency on the screen for decades, but it also just seems like something the actor isn’t fully capable of achieving. Things obviously may be tweaked before the official opening. Either way, it’s not detrimental. Maybe it just doesn’t translate in the broader strokes of theater.
With that in mind, there is absolutely a movie in this yarn, as Ephron originally intended it. McAlary’s story, which at one point finds itself soaked in elements of disgrace as he suffers a near-fatal (alcohol-influenced) automobile accident and, perhaps worse, writes a story refuting a rape claim based on what turned out to be bad information from his police sources, is intriguing when seen in the abstract as a metaphor for the profession he held so dear.
What is the state journalism today? Has the Internet brought it to a pandering place of infotainment, ethics ever flirting with slippery slopes? Or do its glory years still lie ahead, the free flow of information demanding stewards of fact more than ever? Perhaps its darkest modern hour came all too recently when shoddy reporting led, this very month 10 years ago, to a manufactured “war” in Iraq, nadir to any zenith Woodward and Bernstein might have reached nearly three decades prior. There are themes to play with in McAlary’s rise-fall-rise story that could be profound in that light. In short, the material has a shot at landing in the pantheon of dramatic realizations of the form, from Sidney Lumet’s “Network” to Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” to Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole,” the aforementioned “All the President’s Men” to Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass.”
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Hanks admitted that a movie version is still possible. With these kinds of receipts coming in for the Broadway production, one could probably bank on it.
McAlary’s story, at least, ended on a happy note. He earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his exclusive reporting on the wrongful arrest, savage beating and forced sodomizing of Haitian club-goer Abner Louima (portrayed briefly but powerfully by actor Stephen Tyrone Williams in “Lucky Guy”). It was a story he broke and continued to report while undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. It was a tough time for him to be tackling such a thing, but, in so many words, it was his job.
It also recalls Ephron’s intense work ethic in her waning years, during which only a close circle of friends and family knew of her condition. Writing in The New York Times Magazine about his mother, Jacob Bernstein reflected on that intriguing connection. I’ll close on his words, and leave you with this from me: “Lucky Guy” is a beautiful remembrance of a hard worker. It’s a poignant tale of ambition. It’s a profound study of a vital profession. But it is, above all, a declaration: Do the job that demands to be done.
“In the play my mother wrote, there”s a scene toward the end, in which McAlary, sick with cancer, goes to the Poconos to visit his friend Jim Dwyer, then a columnist at The Daily News. It”s a glorious summer day, and McAlary”s 12-year-old son, Ryan, wants to do a flip off the diving board, but he gets scared and can”t do it. So McAlary takes off his shirt, walks to the edge of the diving board and says to him: ‘When you do these things, you can”t be nervous. If you think about what can go wrong, if you think about the belly flop, that”s what”ll happen.’
“And then McAlary does the flip himself and makes a perfect landing.
“It”s a metaphor, obviously, for his view about life. And I”ve come to think it might as well have been about my mother. The point is that you don”t let fear invade your psyche. Because then you might as well be dead.
“As she saw him, McAlary was a role model not so much in life, but in death, in the way that he used writing to maintain his sense of purpose and find release from his illness. In the six years my mother had MDS, she wrote 100 blog posts, two books and two plays and directed a movie. There was nothing she could do about her death but to keep going in the face of it. Work was its own kind of medicine, even if it could not save her…”
“Lucky Guy” is currently in previews at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. It opens April 1 and will run through June 16. And if you’re able, you should absolutely see it.