Lucky Guy boasts a posthumous script by the beloved late writer and director Nora Ephron; the Broadway debut of super-duper movie star Tom Hanks; and the real-life story of Mike McAlary, a swaggering New York tabloid columnist who made a lot of noise in the 1980s and ’90s in a town that took its tabloid swagger seriously. (He was 41 when he died of cancer in 1998.) That’s a lot of juicy back story — none of which saves Lucky Guy from its fate as a dull, stalled play about a not-particularly-noteworthy mug with a flair for self-promotion. Two hours of Lucky Guy and a theater-goer with no previous knowledge of McAlary and his tabloid cronies will still have no idea why Ephron was so enamored of this blowhard, no sense of McAlary himself, and no explanation for why a Broadway production, directed by the inventive George C. Wolfe with so much energetic set-changing and stage business, nevertheless feels so inconsequential and dramatically inert.
This is bum news on many levels, not least of which is that Lucky Guy is a show rolling in good will and affection for the playwright. (Ephron died in June of 2012 at age 71, having kept her acute myeloid leukemia a secret even from many of those who loved her).) The production itself is pulled by a wagonful of talent both among the large ensemble cast of 17 and the top-drawer tech team. Theoretically at least, the antics of hard-drinking, cop-and-criminal-chasing tough-guy journalists ought to make for at least few lollapalooza scenes in the tradition of the quintessential 1928 tabloid drama The Front Page. That Ephron couldn’t solve the creative problems of making McAlary interesting beyond the facts of his life — he scrambled after fame and a fat salary, he reveled in stories about corruption, he almost died in a car crash, he got cancer, he broke a splashy story about police brutality that featured details of racism and appalling sexual abuse, he died — is no particular insult to the many things Ephron could and did do splendidly. But there is something both misguided and oddly unfair to the artist about mounting a bold-face-name production of a piece that the writer herself would (I’m guessing) have wanted to workshop and redo as she saw and heard the many dead spots where Lucky Guy just hangs there, with characters insisting that Mike McAlary was fascinating. And no proof to back up the declaration.
Not that the cast — including Peter Scolari as a rival columnist and Maura Tierney as McAlary’s wife — isn’t game. Those buying a ticket for the celebrity value of seeing Tom Hanks Live are rewarded with a committed, generous performance by the real-deal star — and the bonus of discovering that the show’s true MVP is Courtney B. Vance as McAlary’s hard-working editor Hap Hairston. Hairston (who was 53 when he died in 2002) was a pro at making his cage-rattling staffer’s prose sound characteristically McAlary-esque. And Vance makes Ephron’s words pass as interesting. (That’s because Hairston — who was very occasionally my editor when I worked at The Daily News in 1990 — was a far more intriguing a personality than McAlary.) In contrast, Christopher McDonald works up a whole lot of fun overacting moves as big-time NYC lawyer/powerbroker/fixer Eddie Hayes. But I’m going to bet that anyone in the audience who settles into his seat not knowing the meaning of the name ”Eddie Hayes” in New York circles will leave knowing no more at the end.
Still, have I mentioned that Lucky Guy stars Tom Hanks? The visiting Angeleno is a swell guy and a great big ticket-selling draw who gives good value for the money. Making an entrance of his own after McAlary’s chorus of colleagues and competitors have opened the show, the pro acknowledges the spotlight applause graciously and lightly. And in a selected moment or two, he engages ever so briefly with the audience, as if to acknowledge that the main reason people have paid big money to see a show about a little-known newspaperman is him, sporting a big moustache and giving all he’s got for his late pal Nora Ephron. C+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)