Monday, April 15, 2013

Lucky Guy: Trying to Resurrect the Newspaper Play

Tom Hanks and Courtney B. Vance in Lucky Guy (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The posthumous Broadway production of Nora Ephron’s play Lucky Guy is handsomely staged by George C. Wolfe, against stylish sets by David Rockwell, and it generates considerable energy. It’s a newspaper play, a rousing genre that now, in the twilight of print journalism, rarely gets tapped by playwrights or screenwriters. (Probably the most recent newspaper movie was Hollywood’s 2009 version of the British TV miniseries State of Play; the last one I can recall before that is The Paper, made a decade and a half earlier, in which the columnist played by Randy Quaid is a fictionalized version of McAlary.) Ephron’s subject is the life and career of Mike McAlary (Tom Hanks, making his Broadway debut), who wrote mostly for The New York Daily News in the eighties and nineties. He rose to prominence when he covered the poisoned Tylenol story in 1985 – which he caught by chance because it broke on a Friday night and everyone else in the newsroom was eager to get home for the weekend – won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the brutalizing of Abner Louima by racist cops, and died of cancer at forty-one. Except for the Julia Child section of Julie & Julia, I was never hot on Ephron’s screenplays, but she came up as a reporter, and for a little while you hope that Lucky Guy, with its speedy tempo and its colorful collection of cheerfully profane newsroom characters, might turn out to be a good entertainment. But it’s barely even a play.

Ephron seems to have had two ideas. The first was to pay tribute to what she believed was the last great era of journalism, which sounds like a perfectly good plan. But her methodology was to cobble together the story out of interviews with the people who knew McAlary best, and their stage counterparts, his fellow newspapermen, pass the story back and forth among themselves, occasionally arguing over how they’re coming across in each other’s narratives. That’s Ephron’s second idea – journalism as a series of competing stories – but the play never develops it; the scene in Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page, the greatest of all newspaper plays (and the source of four different movies, including His Girl Friday), where we hear the reporters, yelling into phones to the news desks of their various rags, reconstruct the escape of a Death Row inmate in dramatically different versions, makes the same point more effectively in about a minute and a half. Here the shifting voice of the narration keeps getting in the way of the play; instead of writing it as a series of dramatic scenes, Ephron renders almost all of it in the form of commentary. After half an hour I began to wonder when the actual play would begin. It never really does. And when it gets to the home stretch – the Louima story, the Pulitzer and McAlary’s untimely demise – it violates the premise of the newspaper play, which is a special brand of hard-boiled comedy, and goes sentimental. The narrators start to eulogize McAlary before they even get to his death, painting him as a model of the old-style reporter as a knight who rides out to right the wrongs of the world. Michael Gaston (as Newsday columnist Jim Dwyer) even reads his final speech with tears in his throat; the play’s descent into melodrama is complete when we hear somber piano music over the final scene.

Tom Hanks and Maura Tierney (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Hanks wears his hair curled and he has a cunning mustache; visually he certainly suggests both McAlary himself and the now-antique journalistic world of which he was a holdover. Given the actor’s association with Ephron, who wrote Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, it’s not surprising to see him front and centre in Lucky Guy, and certainly his association with the play must have guaranteed that it would show up on Broadway. But Hanks is miscast. He doesn’t seem comfortable in the hard-boiled style, the way the character actors in the supporting cast (Gaston, Courtney B. Vance, Danny Mastrogiorno, Christopher McDonald, Richard Masur, Peter Scolari, Brian Dykstra and especially Peter Gerety, who gives the evening’s best performance as an editor who dies at the end of act one) clearly do. The cast is almost entirely male; Ephron makes the point early on that this is a “guy” story. The only women who show up are Deirdre Lovejoy as the one female reporter in the Daily News newsroom, who can out-curse her male cohorts (unfortunately, Lovejoy’s performance is nothing but screaming) and Maura Tierney as McAlary’s wife Alice. Tierney was memorable on the TV show ER, and she did a nice job with a recurring role as a manipulative politician earlier this season on The Good Wife, but Alice McAlary is a thankless role. She gets to buck up her husband when he has guilt over the suicide of a cop (Dykstra) he interviewed for what came to be known as the “7 & 7” story, about corruption in the 77th Precinct, and then, more predictably, she gets to bitch about all the time her famous husband spends away from her. Tierney isn’t very good, but I don’t know what any actress with personality and style could do with a part like this, which asks her to pretend she doesn’t have either.
The supporting actors give the play an edge that isn’t in the writing, and they seem to be having a high time. But I kept imagining them in a production of The Front Page, and my fantasy revival was way better than Lucky Guy.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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