Lucky Guy

Lucky Guy, a new play by the late Nora Ephron, tells the story of the life of Mike McAlary. McAlary won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his expose of the torture by NYPD officers of Abner Louima; Louima's Wikipedia entry is about twice as long as McAlary's, and therein lies one of the chief problems of this show: the subjects of a journalist's work are almost certainly more interesting than the journalist himself. This is not to say that Lucky Guy is without substance, but the way that Ephron has chosen to tell the story of this man who, as the play tells us, was the guy people called when something like the Louima case broke, removes a lot of its inherent drama.

McAlary, you see, was one of the last of a dying breed, a newspaperman who rose to the top of his profession in the '90s, at the end of an era when print journalism still dominated the news business, before the internet changed everything. There's a kind of heroism in his passion to Get The Story No Matter What, and it's fully romanticized here, in a smoky world of city desks and bar rooms where McAlary and his editors and cronies congregate to serve up the news to a hungry public a la Lou Grant or The Front Page.

There's also a familiar, tragic arc to McAlary's actual history: he got very close to the top, only to be shot down by an act of hubris that nearly destroyed him. And then he makes a comeback, falters, and then soars even higher. There's an archetypal American story to be told here, but Ephron doesn't really tell it either.

What she does do is have her characters break the fourth wall much of the time, narrating McAlary's tale from their own various perspectives. We hear a lot of intriguing stuff, but seldom are we shown any. When Mike goes off for his first important interview (with the boyfriend of a victim of cyanide-laced Tylenol), only a snippet of the exchange is actually enacted; mostly Mike tells us what happened. Later, in an interview with a corrupt cop that would lead to his first big triumph, all we get to hear the cop say is maybe a sentence or two; again, Mike and others inform us about what occurred rather than letting us witness it for ourselves. Only Abner Louima really gets a chance to speak for himself, and it's one of the most effective scenes in the play as a result.

Mike's personal life is similarly mostly doled out in reminiscence. We do get a super scene in which Mike and his lawyer Eddie Hayes hook up for the first time, and launch a fruitful partnership. Tom Hanks, who stars as Mike, and Christopher McDonald, as Eddie, shine here, revealing a terrific chemistry and reveling in the chance to show rather than tell.

But we don't get anything similar when Hanks reunites with his long-ago TV co-star Peter Scolari, who plays McAlary's colleague Michael Daly. They have about two lines of dialogue together; Scolari spends most of the play, like most of the rest of the ensemble, offering commentary from the sidelines.

Hanks dominates the piece, as he should; he's a fine actor and has a sturdy, likeable presence (as expected) that anchors the show and keeps it compelling throughout. But I kept wishing for him to get to interact with the others on stage more; to let the audience into the story rather than constantly keeping us one step removed due to the incessant narration.

Courtney B. Vance has the other choice role in the piece, as McAlary's friend and editor Hap Hairston. Deirdre Lovejoy creates two utterly different newswomen with real flair, and Maura Tierney is effective in the entirely underwritten role of McAlary's wife. (I was struck by the fact that this play by a woman is so dominated by its male characters.)

The play is directed with lots of kinetic energy by George C. Wolfe, and features a solid production design and ensemble cast. What I missed was any kind of raison d'etre: when the play was over, I wondered why Ephron and her collaborators had wanted to tell the story of Mike McAlary. The work on stage offers tantalizing clues, but finally never answered what for me is the most essential question of theater: why?