There’s a lot of narration in Nora Ephron‘s last work, Lucky Guy, but that quickly becomes the point.
A swirling drama set in various tabloid newsrooms starting in the 1980s, when scandal, corruption, and suicides ruled the headlines, this is first and foremost a play about the art of storytelling. It recounts the explosion of brash, controversial writer Mike McAlary, and his gift for sniffing out hot reportage and passing it on as if tossing a grenade into everyone’s complacence. In doing so, Lucky Guy becomes an act of storytelling unto itself. All the characters in the various newsrooms have a part in telling us what happened, as McAlary rises to front-page prominence, becomes disgraced after a few scandals of his own, and has a final surge (and Pulitzer prize) before succumbing to cancer.
Hanks is terrific at capturing the writer’s gumption, drive, and vulnerability. Not easy to pin down, McAlary is horrified when an article he wrote prompts one of his sources to kill himself, but he doesn’t hesitate to make TV appearances about the horror almost immediately. Simultaneously self-promoting and self-effacing, adoring and disruptive, McAlary isn’t always right, which makes for a good bundle of contradictions for Hanks to play with (in between group bar songs, tough-guy banter, and obligatory domestic scenes of the “We need to spend more time together” variety.)
But this is truly an ensemble piece, and the whole company–as directed by George C. Wolfe–is strong, including the turns by Courtney B. Vance, Peter Gerety, and Richard Masur as various colorful editors who helped squire McAlary’s work into fruition.
Act One has too much of that narration, but it captures the screaming, smoking, boozing, anxious, foul-mouthed milieu of the city newsroom, which Efron–who passed away last year–cut her teeth in. The scenes are short-ish, so the play has a cinematic flow that’s not surprising coming from an Efron/Hanks collaboration, though the fourth-wall-breaking chats to the audience make the structure more theatrical in nature, and the whole thing is as rich in ambience as a steaming plate of old subway graffiti.
Act Two is less narrated and more melancholy, as McAlary gets sick, but he becomes re-galvanized when he breaks the story about Abner Louima, the Haitian man whom out-of-control police officers sodomized with a plunger, among other outrageous brutalizations. Stephen Tyrone Williams is moving as Louima, but I felt the followup was too hastily dealt with. We don’t see enough of McAlary’s triumph in that particular story, and never get enough sense of what his actual writing was like.
As the evening’s sketchy feeling becomes its defining feature, it’s clear that this is more of a character evocation than a strict narrative. It’s a play about atmosphere–the booze-and-smoke-filled arena where headlines are born, chances are taken, and, most of all, stories are told. In the uneven but boisterously affecting result, McAlary’s pure love of journalism–like Ephron’s–shines through like a cigarette in the dark.