Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 1, 2013
Lucky Guy a new play by Nora Ephron. Director George C. Wolfe. Scenic design David Rockwell. Costume design Toni-Leslie James. Sound design Scott Lehrer. Lighting design Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer. Projection design Batwin+Robin Productions, Inc. Hair & wig design Robert-Charles Vallance. Cast: Tom Hanks, also starring Christopher McDonald, Peter Gerety, Courtney B. Vance, Peter Scolari, Richard Masur, and Maura Tierney, with, Brian Dykstra, Michael Gaston, Dustyn Gulledge, Andrew Hovelson, Deirdre Lovejoy, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Stephen Tyrone Williams, Paula Jon DeRose, Joe Forbrich, Thomas Michael Hammond, Marc Damon Johnson.
At first glance, the pairing might not make sense. The real McAlary was, as pundits and commentators remain today, a polarizing figure: a man of strong opinions and an incisive voice, whose hunger for a good scoop was forever at war with his personal core of journalistic (and, occasionally, humanistic) integrity. You know, the kind some people love to read and others love to hate. And Hanks, for his many gifts as a screen actor, rarely summons emotions that gutturally passionate.
But such an appraisal of Hanks's not-entirely-undeserved reputation of playing good guys on screen omits the edge that's a crucial component of his best Hollywood performances. In his Oscar-winning turns in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but even in more populist fare like Catch Me If You Can and the Toy Story series, his cheery, avuncular nature is always tinted with a darkness that suggests a deeper set of emotions beneath the surface — as though he's always holding something back.
That quality does not evaporate in front of a live audience, as can often happen when screen actors take the stage. (Julia Roberts, in the 2006 Broadway production of Three Days of Rain, being the quintessential example of this.) Though McAlary first appears thundering onstage to stake his claim to the chief miner of "red meat" stories at the then-aborning New York Newsday, Hanks tempers his bluster with a palpable yearning for his work and even a sense of compassion that would not immediately seem to be in place in a fast-paced, furiously competitive newsroom environment.
It brands McAlary as special, and guides us through 12 years of narrative that prove it. Leaping from paper to paper as opportunity dictates (and the economy insists), he becomes an in-demand, highly paid force who never loses the professional or personal fire that made him so strangely endearing at first sight. So when his sweet life sours following a car crash, scandal begins tainting his record and his livelihood, and cancer inflicts him in his prime, the shifting occurs with no lurch: We were prepared for this tough-shelled man to face adversity from the beginning, and because we've always seen the softie inside, it comes as no surprise.
There is more to the evening than just Hanks, however, and much of that's in solid shape as well. Ephron's affection for journalism is evident throughout, and much of the play is a mash note, if a genuinely accessible one, to its processes and its prickliness. The numerous scenes set among editors and writers crackle with percussive writing that mirrors the musical cacophony of a bull pen of typewriters and, later, computer keyboards. And as written, with the characters frequently addressing the audience directly and changing and commenting on the action as it unfolds, there's an off-the-cuff, reportorial feel to the proceedings that gives it the fresh, unpredictable, and even exciting aroma of a one-time morning extra.
Wolfe has given dramatic embodiment to Ephron's scripted aesthetic, with a thoroughly fluid staging that elicits a lively spark from the myriad short, potentially jagged, scenes from which the play is constructed. Scenic designer David Rockwell and especially lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhower are instrumental in rounding out this atmosphere: The void-like set is punctuated with projections and video that clarify crucial components of McAlary's rise and fall, with a black-and-white color palette that so evokes shadow and rotogravure that you can all but smell the newsprint.
Unfortunately, Lucky Guy is not without its problems. Foremost among them is a second act that gets mired in the later tragedies of McAlary's life, and in most scenes is as motionless as the first act is hyperkinetic. And though the company includes superb actors like Peter Gerety, Courtney B. Vance, Peter Scolari, and Richard Masur as McAlary's colleagues, they're not able to pump much blood into their sketchy supporting parts. Tierney does her best to energize McAlary's stabilizing wife, Alice, but is hamstrung by her unwillingness to yield up more than one emotion simultaneously. Only Christopher McDonald finds a spark of necessity in his role as McAlary's lawyer, and he looks to be having — and giving — more fun than anyone else onstage.
Even so, Hanks is doing thoughtful, memorable work in portraying a man who was willing to give literally everything he had to his writing, and he convincingly demonstrates the toll enacted by going as far as necessary to go to finalize such a bargain. But it's Ephron, and her devotion to just the same mindset, that generates the play's more enduring power. Ultimately it doesn't matter so much that Lucky Guy is strongly in need of another revision it will never receive. It nevertheless stands as an appealing tribute to Ephron's talent and the profession she held so dear.