On my recent trip to New York I took in an early preview of Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy”, which is Tom Hanks Broadway debut. It is the story of the rise, fall and rise again of Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Mike McAlary before his death in 1998. The show opens with much of the cast in a bar singing the Irish drinking classic “Wild Rover” while remembering their colleague after his passing and recalling the professional and personal life of the man that was driven to succeed and his very healthy ego. The show uses the device of the friends and colleagues remembering McAlary to propel the story forward, stepping out and talking to the audience as if they were just another individual at the bar listening to the stories of their fallen comrade before melting seamlessly back into the show. Having not lived in New York City during the mid-1980s through the late 1990s some of the stories he wrote about and were re-told were only vaguely familiar to me at best and his personal life and jockeying between newspapers I was completely unfamiliar. Fortunately, there was no need to have an understanding of that history to enjoy the show.
The first act takes place at an almost frenetic pace. The set was largely limited to desks you would find in a 1980s newsroom that could be rolled around the stage for different configurations. Nothing seemed to be stationary for more than a minute. It was as if they were capturing the breakneck pace of the newspaper newsroom, and the hustle that McAlary was putting in to move up the ranks from covering local borough meetings, to getting on the police beat, to getting his own column. The bar used in the opening of the show could also be rolled around when it was needed for a scene, but often was set at the back of the stage with some of the actors hanging around. Furthering the plot device that the acting at the foreground of the stage was the retelling of the stories McAlary’s colleagues were remembering at the bar. Of course the show is about the rise, fall and rise again of McAlary and the second act is the redemption of the fallen McAlary after some personal and professional missteps culminating with his coverage of the Abner Louima story. Fair warning, a fairly graphic re-telling (verbally) of the Louima story does take place during the show when McAlary visits Louima in the hospital.
While the show itself was worth the price of admission, what truly drew the sold out crowd to the theater was Tom Hanks. The greatest compliment I can pay to Hanks is that this is more than just a star turn for him on Broadway. I’ve been to performances of Broadway shows before where I have been drawn in by the name above the marque and when I have left the best I can say is that I got to see actor X perform live. That doesn’t mean the performance was bad, but usually that the show itself was lacking. Fortunately, this time I walked away not only having seen an excellent performance from Hanks, but also a solid production from top to bottom, including the script from Nora Ephron. When someone is as famous as Hanks, it is near impossible to say you aren’t conscious that you are watching Tom Hanks the whole time. So, I won’t go as far as to say he completely disappeared into the character, but the fact you were watching Tom Hanks was no longer at the front of your mind. Instead it was the story and the performances on stage that really drove the evening and made it a wonderful night of theater. However, there were certain moments where certain intonations or mannerisms of Hanks appear that we are all familiar with and they satisfy those desiring those Hanksisms, but are not so distracting as to be just a ploy for the paying audience. Heck, I wouldn’t even say they were intentional.
The remainder of the cast deserves recognition as well. Specifically, Courtney B. Vance as McAlary’s editor Hap Hairston. He was the most prominent of the supporting characters and the interaction and give and take between Hanks and Vance were some of the more enjoyable moments of the production. Whether it was McAlary suggesting Hairston got where he was because of his race, or the two of them both doped up on morphine while in the hospital. It made you wish for a larger role for Vance, just to get more scenes between the two characters and the two actors. The remainder of the cast was enjoyable to watch, but this is really a piece carried by Hanks with the rest of the cast in supporting roles as they come and go during moments in McAlary’s life. Please don’t read into that as a criticism of the performances, because that is not what is intended or what would be deserved. Rather, the show as written and as performed was dominated by McAlary/Hanks. I would add in a brief side note that Deirdre Lovejoy, in a small role, steals some of the spotlight briefly early in the show as a foul-mouthed veteran reporter who can’t get two words out without one of them being the f-word.
As it was an early preview of the show there were some technical things that needed to be straightened out, like Hanks either not hitting his mark or the lighting being off, so half his head was outside of the spotlight. Or late in the first act when some of the characters are singing another Irish drinking song drowning out some of the dialogue going on at the same time. But these things are easily correctable. Fortunately, the more important issues, like the script and performances, were solid from top to bottom and the show will deserve all the accolades it gets.
I don’t get to Broadway enough to make Tony predictions, I can say I would be surprised if the show did not at least receive nominations for best play, best actor for Hanks and best featured actor for Vance.