Bellied up to the bar with a bunch of hard-drinking tabloid reporters is about the last place you’d expect to find Nora Ephron and Tom Hanks, who collaborated on the genteel screen comedies Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. But Meg Ryan is nowhere in sight in Lucky Guy, a bittersweet reunion in that playwright Ephron passed away last year, leaving this final, unlikely production, where the most prominent romance is between a newsman and his story.
Hanks, a two-time Academy Award winner, makes a seamless Broadway debut as Mike McAlary, who bounced from Newsday, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post in hot pursuit of “the wood,” the top crime stories in the 80s and 90s. For much of the first act, Ephron’s tardy contribution to the flagging genre of newspaper plays popularized by The Front Page is shouted out at us at headline pace by a cast that barely interacts, as a barrage of projections supplements each character’s history lesson. Familiar faces play McAlary's colleagues. Christopher McDonald, Richard Masur, Peter Gerety and Hanks’ one-time TV “bosom buddy” Peter Scolari have fun ripping into ribald anecdotes about the irrepressible newshound and columnist, but the emphasis on narration is tedious, and Ephron’s apparent desire to out f-word David Mamet tiresome.
Lucky Guy is luckier in its second act, as a drunken driving accident slows both McAlary and the production. Having marshaled a saloonful of performers for the first hour, director George C. Wolfe focuses his attention on a handful for the second, and the show coalesces into something more affecting. Hobbling back to the newsroom, McAlary is spoon-fed incorrect information about a sensitive rape case by his police sources, and his stubborn refusal to admit any error sees him banished to the back pages as a lawsuit simmers. A particularly virulent cancer further slows the columnist, who almost declines to speak with immigrant Abner Louima. His tale of sodomy by rogue cops, as conveyed by McAlary in sensational Pulitzer Prize-winning columns, electrifies the city, and redeems the newspaperman at the 30 of his life. Given more to play than a rambunctious egocentricity Hanks responds with a battered yet bold performance, supported by Maura Tierney as McAlary’s concerned wife, Courtney B. Vance as his staunch editor and Stephen Tyrone Williams as Louima.
An invisible, invaluable contribution comes from sound designer Scott Lehrer, who told me that to ensure a rapt stillness in the theater he has the air conditioning shut off for a portion of the second act. The sound of silence, clearing away the hot air of self-absorption, proves a tonic for Lucky Guy, and provides a respectful end for the playwright and her subject.