A work of great depth, a showcase of first-rate acting: Lucky Guy, Nora Ephron’s final play and Tom Hanks’s Broadway debut, is neither.
Ephron’s telling of the life of the New York tabloid journalist Mike McAlary, with Hanks in the lead as the charismatic reporter who drank and smoked his way through the 80s and early 90s, when the city was riven by crack and crime, before dying prematurely of cancer in 1998, never goes beyond glimpses of the newsman’s life.
Even before you’ve settled into your seat at the Broadhurst Theatre, McAlary goes from waiting around for scraps of work in a smoke-filled newsroom to star crime reporter, exposing the grimy insides of the New York Police Department; and then, in another flash, he is a star columnist. Suddenly, he has got a story wrong and he’s a fallen star. Blink, and he has cancer. Blink again and he has the scoop of his lifetime, one that eventually wins him the Pulitzer Prize. We barely get to see him in action or hear him. Instead, his colleagues, his lawyer, his wife step in to fill in the blanks, taking turns at narrating the tale to the audience.
But what it lacks in depth, the play makes up for in sheer entertainment. The breakneck pace is backed up by a fluent and funny script, and sprawling, energetic cast, including the brilliant Courtney B Vance, who plays Hap Hairston, one of McAlary’s editors, and is one of the play’s highlights.
Above all, the combination of Ephron’s writing and the direction of George C Wolfe succeeds in recreating a sense of the heyday of the New York tabloids in the 80s, when the Daily News, the Post and the upstart Newsday lined up against each other, fighting headline with headline at a time when there was graffiti on the subway and the murder rate was climbing (the peak was in 1990, when there were 2,245 homicides, against around 412 in 2012). Hanks and the cast are shown making their way through a series of newsrooms, each smokier than the last. Everyone has a drink in hand - and almost everyone is male. The winds of (some) change are evident as the play progresses, when the no smoking signs go up.
Thanks to the pace, Hanks’s acting skills are never fully tested. But like the play, he does succeed in keeping the audience entrained with his energy, which never flags.
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