Last Words

Ephron’s encore transcends both stage and story

lucky guyThere are several obvious reasons to applaud the arrival of Lucky Guy, the splendidly thoughtful and robustly entertaining new play about the life and career of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York newspaper columnist and general all-around tough guy Mike McAlary, which bounded into the Broadhurst in time to jazz up an otherwise anemic Broadway season. First, it’s Nora Ephron’s final play in an illustrious career that was unfairly cut short when she died of cancer on June 26, 2012, at the still-young age of 71. Second, it marks the triumphant theater debut of Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, already one of the greatest movie stars on the planet, now proving that his acting chops are just as impressive in person. Third, it’s a play that grabs you by the throat, makes you laugh and cry, holds you transfixed for two hours, paralyzes you with excitement from start to finish and leaves you cheering. I can think of no stronger motivation for getting off your duff for an exclusive glimpse of what the theater is like when plays percolate and sizzle. You don’t hardly get them kind no more.

But my favorite reason that Lucky Guy is one of the best evenings I have spent in a Broadway theater in donkey’s years is personal. Nora, a friend and champion of mine from the day I arrived in New York, green as grass and aspiring to crack the Gardol shield of big-time journalism, has, within the parameters of one two-fisted journalist’s kidney-punch rise from rags to riches, told a story about all of us ink-stained wretches who bucked the odds to get our bylines in print. It’s a valentine to the great days when New York was a seven-paper town and the city rooms bulged with fighting, cussing, hard-drinking, chain-smoking characters beating Smith-Coronas to scrap metal and hanging onto the last remnants of Damon Runyon. If you were an aspiring writer, rising from copy boy to a column of your own was tantamount to getting the best table at Toots Shor’s without a reservation. Nora knew Brooklyn-born Mike McAlary from The New York Post, and I was one of his compatriots during my 13-year run at the Daily News. In fact, everyone in Lucky Guy is part of a scene I remember with an ache of nostalgia .

So McAlary bounced from Newsday, where he didn’t even have a desk, to the Post, the News and back again, in the center of a neon circus called New York. Tom Hanks recreates—with affection and passion—the headlines and scoops, from the Rolling Stones to the Tylenol cyanide scare. The play brings to life McAlary’s glory in the dusty gray pages of Newsday, the Long Island-based intruder in a tabloid town that tried to compete for straphangers’ attention and lost hundreds of millions of dollars in failing to do so. Nora gets it all down for posterity—McAlary’s “flop sweat” to meet deadlines when he didn’t have a story, the gossip with all of his Irish cronies at Elaine’s, the love-hate rivalry with Jimmy Breslin, the trips tracking ledes to crackhouses where the authorities wouldn’t go. Exposing everyone from drug dealers to indicted cops, he had a talent for getting people to talk. One unstable policeman he interviewed read his column, locked himself in a motel room and blew his brains out. McAlary was sorry about that, but the guilt didn’t prevent him from doing several TV interviews to indulge in self-promotion.

Nora covers the warts and awards with the objectivity of an investigative reporter and the pop-and-crackle dialogue of a horny longshoreman, and George C. Wolfe directs the behind-the-scenes bombast with the personal nuances of a volatile character in transition, giving Tom Hanks endless opportunities for an unleashed exploration of every personality trait. There were stronger writers, more colorful characters and better-known household names, but with the aid of Eddie Hayes (Christopher McDonald), his unscrupulous slam-dunk lawyer-turned-manager, McAlary soared from lowly Post police reporter to $125,000-a-year columnist at the Daily News, ignoring his wife (straight-from-the-hip work by a marvelous Maura Tierney) and kids, staying out all night looking for the next scoop and drinking himself into a near-fatal stroke. He was a lucky guy—he recovered. During the big 1990 strike at the Daily News, when the drivers picketed and the presses stopped, he moved on, betrayed loyalties, signed a new million-dollar contract with the Post and never looked back. When he started out, all he wanted was to be a columnist. Then he wanted to be the highest-paid columnist in New York. Then it didn’t matter about the money as long as he earned more than Jimmy Breslin. All of his wishes came true, but he ended up miserable.

While you’re watching a greedy success story, Ms. Ephron also shows you the creeping realization that at the top of McAlary’s game, he was already a dinosaur, and the milk train almost crashed again when he smashed up his car in the pouring rain on the way home from Yankee Stadium at 2 a.m., dead drunk and going 70 miles an hour on the FDR Drive. Like characters on prime-time soaps, he miraculously came back to life again. Learning to walk and talk again, he went back to work at the News and declared war on Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He was still overrated and overpaid, but a little more humanity seeped into his copy. His downfall started in 1994 when he tried to expose the “Jane Doe rape case” as a hoax, but instead of another Tawana Brawley, the facts in the case proved otherwise. Journalists, cops, friends, neighbors and especially his editors turned on him, labeling him a hypocrite. He was sued for $12 million in a libel case that almost destroyed his credibility as a journalist. At the same time, his health went south, followed by surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But even here, Nora bleeds humor from a bruised turnip when his longtime friend and editor Hap Hairston (Courtney B. Vance) has a heart attack at the same time and the two buddies up their morphine drips together over the telephone. Like winning the lottery, McAlary survived another lethal crisis and hopscotched back to the Daily News. Reduced to one column a week for less money, he was ready to throw in the towel when an anonymous call tipped him off that the cops had violently sodomized an immigrant janitor in a bathroom at police headquarters with a broom. McAlary blew the story wide open, and the notorious Abner Louima case became a major police scandal that made headlines and won him the Pulitzer Prize—“a mistake I can live with,” he sniffed cynically. So McAlary was a lucky guy one last time—and a legend in his own mind—before he died of cancer in 1998.

Ms. Ephron was terminally ill herself when she wrote this play. In its most poignant scene, when Mr. Hanks, as McAlary, talks about why he isn’t ready to die yet, the audience was visibly moved, intrinsically sensing the author’s own private regrets about saying goodbye too soon. Mr. Hanks, who agreed to a limited run of her play as a personal celebration of their friendship, ends the play with McAlary’s final story—his own eulogy. Lucky Guy tells a great story about journalism with a perfect star who does everything right. He bellows. He rants. He yells obscenities. He moves like a motorcycle. And he triggers every emotional pulse. (It’s also a kick to see him share the stage with his old Bosom Buddies co-star Peter Scolari, as fellow columnist Michael Daly.) But Lucky Guy is also a personal statement about what used to be the glory and the nature of journalism. Bigger-than-life writers were up, and then they were down; all it took to reinvent your byline was one more good story. It’s a lament for the slow death of the print media in a bygone era before digital technology turned a once-noble profession cold as a zombie’s heart.

Excelsior! Lucky Guy has certainly warmed mine.

rreed@observer.com