Saturday, April 6, 2013

Tom Hanks is a "Lucky Guy" on Broadway

Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks proves his acting talent is just as great onstage as he makes his Broadway debut annoyingly, movingly and always convincingly portraying New York tabloid columnist Mike McAlary in Lucky Guy, Nora Ephron's new play at the Broadhurst Theatre.

Ephron, who died of leukemia last June at 71, was a tabloid reporter (the New York Post) early in her career. She tells the colorful story of McAlary, who died of cancer at 41 on Christmas day in 1998, in flashbacks, starting in 1998 with a gang of McAlary’s former colleagues, “just Irish guys at the bar,” sharing memories. These go back to 1985 and bring McAlary on the scene to relive his tale. Under the direction of George C. Wolfe and with a strong supporting cast, this biographical play captures the gritty feel of the city in that era and the ego and tenacity of the reporters covering it.

“New York City is a tabloid town,” says Hap Hairston (Courtney B. Vance), one of McAlary’s editors, setting the scene. “It was a good time for tabloids.”

Indeed it was. That’s the year I moved to New York and tabloid-ready stories were everywhere -- the crack epidemic was exploding, crime was high and the division between rich and poor was great.

McAlary, with a journalist’s love of a “good story,” is hungry for a spot in New York Newsday’s Manhattan city room, but is stuck covering routine bureaucracy in Queens. Hanks demonstrates his flair for comedy in these scenes, with a determined McAlary pestering Hairston and jumping at the chance to take any crumb of a story the other reporters leave behind at the end of the day. It reminded me of my youth hanging out at The Baltimore Sun, going in on weekends to write and willing to stay all night if they’d let me. I was just as hungry for that life as McAlary.

Why not? As the reporters sum it up at the end, a journalism career means the chance to do something different everyday and to make a difference by getting the truth out there. And the sense of power can be intoxicating, dangerously so as we see with McAlary in Act One as his arrogance overpowers the sense of fun and purpose and he becomes more and more overbearing with his rise from the Queens bureau to the newsroom and then to what for him is the pinnacle of a journalism career -- becoming a New York City columnist. I really didn’t like him, which is a tribute to Hanks’ acting and Ephron's writing.

I liked the second act much better, in terms of the writing and evolution of the character. It picks up where Act One ends, with McAlary’s high speed, drunk driving accident on the FDR Drive. After nearly killing himself, he battles his way through recovery and back to the newsroom, possibly too soon as he makes an extremely poor judgment in a series of columns that leads to a libel suit and harms his reputation inside and outside of the paper.

He holds onto his career, but then metastasized colon cancer strikes and while he hangs on, his fire for the “good story” dies. It is his wife, Alice (an underused Maura Tierney), who gives him the push to respond to a tip that ultimately leads to his Pulitzer Prize shortly before his death. The scene where an emaciated McAlary, guided by Alice, goes back to the newsroom to celebrate is one of the most powerful in the play. Hanks, who is not emaciated by any means, through his bearing and movements portrays a dying man. We are one with McAlary then, all sins forgiven.

I come from a hard news background so I know that world well. I even had several similarities. Like McAlary, I was a police reporter and I know what it’s like to be asking questions at midnight. Try a spell on night cops in Baltimore, attempting to pry information out of a homicide detective before your deadline. That kind of training sets you up to follow any path in a journalism career.

Other connections for me: McAlary studied journalism at Syracuse University; I was a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard. He was a New York Newsday columnist; I wrote a couple of op-ed pieces for them. One of the reporters teaches journalism at CUNY; I taught journalism at Brooklyn College for two semesters while the department chair was on sabbaticals.

What didn’t ring true to me was the rampant use of profanity in Act One. In all of my years in newsrooms put together I never heard as much as I did in two hours of that play. I have nothing against the F word -- I use it myself liberally around my apartment -- but it’s so excessively used in the play as to be ridiculous. It really cheapens the work. Perhaps if Ephron had lived she would have done a good bit of editing when she heard how gratuitous the swearing sounded.

I did love a quote of hers from “Journalism: A Love Story by Nora Ephron” that is included in the program because it spoke to my heart:

“But for many years I was in love with journalism. [Me too!] I loved the city room. [Me too!] I loved the pack. [Me too!] I loved smoking and drinking scotch and playing dollar poker. [I preferred a glass of wine or two after work with colleagues, minus the cigarettes and poker] I didn’t know much about anything, and I was in a profession where you didn’t have to. I loved the speed. [Me too!] I loved the deadlines. [Yes!] I loved that you wrapped the fish.
“You can’t make this stuff up, I used to say.

“I’d known since I was a child that I was going to live in New York eventually, and that everything in between would be just an intermission. [Me too!] I’d spent all those years imagining what New York was going to be like. I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibilities place where if you really wanted something you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to know; a place where I might be able to become the only thing worth being, a journalist.
“And I’d turned out to be right.”

I felt that same way and I thank God over and over again for my journalism career and my life in New York. Lucky Guy provides a fond look back into both worlds.

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