Every play is a partisan act, giving only the playwright’s view of the events it describes. When it’s fiction, and the playwright has dreamed up the whole thing, he or she can be cut plenty of slack: It’s his or her dream, not ours. The playwright’s challenge is to make that dream world seem at least a fair parallel that sheds some light on the one we live in. When the play deals with events we know about or remember living through, the challenge becomes tougher. We instinctively check the playwright’s vision against our own experience.
Few playwrights have embraced this partisanship as enthusiastically as the late Nora Ephron in her posthumous Lucky Guy (Broadhurst Theatre), which chronicles the rapid rise, disastrous downfall, and blaze-of-glory finish of the police reporter and tabloid columnist Mike McAlary. The text constantly signals you that this is a play, not a documentary.
Democratically, she gives each of her characters some chunks of the story to tell, with the narration outweighing the dialogue. In George C. Wolfe’s crisp, swiftly paced production, with its astute and carefully measured use of multimedia, the direct address comes hurtling at you nonstop, except when one narrator’s version of the facts momentarily contradicts another’s. Ephron’s journalistic method complements her subject: short, punchy sentences, each bearing its single factoid, that build to the key points in each segment of her story. Her text doesn’t cite sources, but her cast list does.
With the exception of McAlary’s wife (Maura Tierney) and a few interviewees for key stories he covered, her narrator-characters are all reporters and editors—colleagues, rivals, and bosses of McAlary (Tom Hanks)—whom Ephron interviewed while preparing the work that ultimately became this play. She uses the real names of these often well-known figures, who worked, bickered, socialized, feuded, and, as she tells it, spent much of their time drinking with her protagonist.
Drink is the show’s binding motif. It begins and ends in a newsmen’s bar, with the cast bawling out an Irish folk song. Lucky Guy is the update—and maybe the exit interview—of the theatrical genre that started when Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur poured their collective memories of Chicago’s boozehound crime reporters into The Front Page (1928), spawning dozens of successors and remakes onstage and onscreen. “I’ll do anything for a good story,” says one of Ephron’s characters, the alcohol-steeped editor John Cotter (Peter Gerety). “I’ve seen too many movies about journalism, and I believed them all.”
The show’s raucous, profane humor, like its deadline-beating tempo, helps keep it lively, and Wolfe’s engaging cast takes full advantage of both. Among its standouts: Courtney B. Vance as McAlary’s perpetually beleaguered, weary-eyed editor, Hap Hairston; Christopher McDonald as the smoothie lawyer whose big-bucks promises lure the reporter onto his self-destructive path; Richard Masur as two editors whose loathing for McAlary is nicely differentiated; and Deirdre Lovejoy as two tough newswomen, each duking her way through what was mostly still, in McAlary’s time, an ultra-guy world. Hanks, dapper and smilingly forceful, effectively embodies the image we have of McAlary, yet never deepens it, as if the image alone were all we needed, like the photo that ran at the top of his column.
Similarly, the trim, taut script, sped along by its constant narrative assertions, ultimately seems to pose more questions than it answers. When we read a news story in a paper, or on a computer screen, we know that we’re only getting one slice of it. Tossed at us headlong, with no airspace for ambiguity left around the author’s opinion, Lucky Guy barely offers a glimpse of the world that McAlary and his roistering, hard-drinking pals were supposedly covering while they roistered.
Instead, everything becomes either a cursory summary or, like the tough-guy journos themselves, a preprocessed image. Ephron’s previous Broadway venture, the unsuccessful Imaginary Friends (2002), displayed a similar tendency to reach for the obvious, and a similar underlying blankness. Her version of McAlary starts young and eager. He has a bad attack of second thoughts when his story on a crooked cop provokes the man’s suicide. But the second thoughts don’t last. He becomes a highly paid columnist; he crashes his car, injuring himself severely; trying to prove that he can still cut it, he royally fucks up a politically touchy rape story. Almost retributively, he finds himself facing a serious illness. While struggling with it, he seizes on one last major story, which wins him the Pulitzer Prize.
Full of incident, this chronicle, as Ephron tells it, seems to lack both inner motivation and external atmosphere. Beyond the newsroom and the bar, 1980s and ’90s New York consists here of a few dropped mayoral names; what drives McAlary obsessively back to his investigative work never gets explored. Ephron never falsifies history, but her quick skim over it seems to omit most of its true weight, leaving nothing for her audience to recall or to ponder. She’s digested it all for us beforehand.
August Strindberg’s A Dream Play (HERE Arts Center), in contrast, may be the least digested, untidiest play ever written. Published in 1902, it’s been a perpetual challenge and perplexity to the theater ever since, demanding every sort of impossible thing, starting with the descent of a goddess to earth and ending with a prison-like castle, which grows steadily larger all through the play’s restless, constantly shifting action, bursting into flames and collapsing as it reveals the blooming of a gigantic flower.
Yet Strindberg’s impossible play has both the internal emotional logic and the often harrowing concreteness of actual dreams. The Hindu god Indra’s daughter (played by Tina Chilip with fetching sweetness) descends to earth, only to discover that human life is a series of prolonged agonies, with poetry the sole alleviation.
For over a century, the script has been a playbook for experimental theater worldwide. Yet New York, in my four decades of reviewing, has done it shamefully little honor. Andrew Pang’s production, with an Asian-American cast, brings Strindberg pathetically little three-dimensional life, but at least lets you hear a reasonable sampling of his words (in a stilted adaptation by Sung Rno and Pang). Someday, I hope, our theater will catch up with his dream from 111 years ago.