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NEW YORK — It's fitting that Nora Ephron's swan song, the play "Lucky Guy," calls the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street home. The venue, which has played host to productions of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians," Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys," Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus" and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" over its century-long history, sits around the corner from the old New York Times Building that housed the operations of the Gray Lady for 94 years. And Ephron's play, while an account of the rise, fall and vindication of New York journalist Mike McAlary, is just as much a celebration of the profession the author, filmmaker and playwright once called her own.
The production is also Tom Hanks's Broadway debut, indeed, his first foray into theater since a (literal) college try over 30 years ago. And the rare air of a $1.1 million week of previews (fourth only to massive musicals "The Book of Mormon," "The Lion King" and "Wicked") owes plenty to that fact, hordes of people crowding around the theatre exit and across the street in front of the Helen Hayes Theatre to catch a glimpse of the star after each show. It's the perfect project for someone of his stature, a lovely ode to his co-collaborator on the films "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail" and perhaps the best thing the late Ephron ever wrote.
The piece was originally conceived as a teleplay for HBO over a decade ago, but Ephron could never reconcile her chosen device of telling McAlary's story through the recollections of colleagues. But it's a perfect fit on the stage, Hanks, Maura Tierney, Courtney B. Vance, Christopher McDonald and Hanks's old "Bosom Buddies" co-star Peter Scolari (among others) breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience throughout. But when Ephron revisited it with the stage in mind a few years ago, she had something else to bring to it: an intimate knowledge of staring death in the face, as McAlary did when diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997.
Ephron, who died in June of 2012 from pneumonia complicated by the acute myeloid leukemia with which she had been diagnosed in 2006, never knew McAlary herself, but she certainly knew his ilk. She was a reporter herself at the New York Post in the early-1960s and married Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein not long after he and his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward broke perhaps the biggest story of the 20th Century. She even had a hand in an unused rewrite of William Goldman's draft of "All the President's Men," which led to her career as a screenwriter.
Finally getting around to it, McAlary's story is rather epic. Beginning as an upstart shoe-leather beat reporter eager to hit the pavement and land scoops, he rose through the ranks of the New York news world in the crack-addled late-1980s. Inspired by titans of the trade such as Jimmy Breslin, he broke story after story of police corruption in the city, among other things, before becoming one of the highest paid journalists in the country in 1993 with a lucrative New York Post contract that brought him nearly $1 million over three years. Other publications like the New York Daily News and Newsday were bidding for the guy; his stuff was that good. And, similar to Ephron's early dabbling in screenwriting, his novelization of the screenplay "Copland" -- which he wrote in order to inject some truth into a narrative he found intriguing -- reportedly caused some tweaking of the finished product. (For a more thorough primer, Broadway.com has a list of 10 things you should know about him.)
McAlary was a mensch, by all accounts. But there was a nebulous quality that the play attempts to reconcile with the various recollections from colleagues (and which a 2011 Off-Broadway play, "The Wood," tried to address as well). To get to such a place, particularly in the world of journalism, you have to be dogged. You have to have ambition and an eye out for number one. Ephron's work on the page goes there somewhat. The problem is Hanks's performance never really does. At least personally speaking, it never allows you to dislike him when you probably ought to. It might be because he's been such a beacon of decency on the screen for decades, but it also just seems like something the actor isn't fully capable of achieving. Things obviously may be tweaked before the official opening. Either way, it's not detrimental. Maybe it just doesn't translate in the broader strokes of theater.