Oscar winner Tom Hanks makes a triumphant debut on Broadway in Nora Ephron's tribute to journalist Mike McAlary.
Tom Hanks is one smart guy. Having learned the hard lesson that movie stars should be careful in picking the parts in which they make their Broadway debuts (perhaps he had a heart-to-heart with close friend Julia Roberts) — the two-time Oscar winner has not just chosen well, he has hit the jackpot. As the hardworking, egotistical but essentially decent newspaper columnist Mike McAlary in the late Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy, now at the Broadhurst Theatre, Hanks has found a role that not only fits him like a tailored sport coat, but will probably require him to make more room in his already crowded trophy case.
While he is admittedly a couple decades too old for the role, Hanks' spot-on mixture of gravity, hubris, and humor adds some much-needed weight to Ephron's affectionate eulogy to both the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (who died of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 41) and the colorful, hard-drinking, profanity-laden journalists who populated tabloid newsrooms in the last century. Perhaps because she worked for five years at the New York Post (one of the three dailies through which McAlary ping-ponged over a dozen years), Ephron captures this mostly male world with a razor-sharp eye for detail, relishing a bit too fondly in all the bonding, fighting, and swearing that took place in dingy newsrooms and loud, late-night bars (all evocatively if simply designed by David Rockwell).
Yet, her portrait of this protagonist feels rather more pixilated than personal, which is not altogether surprising. While Ephron reportedly admired McAlary, she actually never met him. Instead, the play clearly relies on copious research (mixed with a healthy gift for dramatization) as Ephron presents McAlary's story through a variety of first-person, seemingly reliable narrators. She dutifully, if somewhat too superficially, covers the many professional and personal hallmarks of McAlary's life. This includes his career-making exposé of crooked, drug-dealing cops in the 77th Precinct and his uncovering of how two cops sodomized immigrant Abner Louima (the effective Stephen Tyrone Williams). Also covered is his marriage to loyal wife Alice (an underused Maura Tierney) and his horrible drunk-driving car accident. Still, I'm not convinced Ephron couldn't have told this story just as effectively in a 10-page magazine article had she chosen.
Fortunately, Ephron gets top-notch assistance from Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe, who paces the two-hour work with needed fleetness, and manages to avoid making even the play's saddest moments, such as Hanks' brilliantly performed final speeches, feel maudlin. (It's the same invaluable skill set he brought to the recent award-winning revival of The Normal Heart.)
Equally important, Wolfe once again proves himself a master of casting. Tony Award nominee Courtney B. Vance brings a delicious complexity to the role of McAlary's good pal, frequent editor, and sometimes conscience Hap Hairston, calling on reserves of sympathy, indignation, and outright anger whenever called for. Take just one look at Peter Gerety and you know pretty much everything about the boozing, eccentric editor John Cotter. Christopher McDonald doesn't do anything he hasn't done countless times before as oily lawyer Eddie Hayes, but he is the perfect embodiment of the character. As the only woman in the cast other than Tierney, Deirdre Lovejoy might stand out no matter what, but she expertly delineates her two roles as brash Newsday reporter Louise Imerman and ambitious Daily News editor Debby Krenek. First-rate talents like Peter Scolari (Hanks' former costar on TV's Bosom Buddies), Michael Gaston, Danny Mastrogiorgio, and Richard Masur may have too little to do, but these actors add immeasurably to the cohesiveness of the cast.
And whether it's Wolfe's doing or not, Hanks is to be commended for knowing when to simply blend in to this ensemble (even his "star entrance" doesn't really lend itself to prolonged applause) and when to rightly stand front and center in the spotlight. We should all consider ourselves lucky that this megatalent has finally decided to grace the Great White Way.