In some ways, we at NYU Local are admittedly in the tank to enjoy Lucky Guy—the final play of the late Nora Ephron, starring her old friend Tom Hanks as real life tabloid columnist Mike McAlary. It’s not just that we’re Ephron fans (who isn’t?), or that we’re Hanks fans (seriously, who isn’t?). Rather, in her swan song, Ephron has constructed a swift and savvy love letter to both journalism and New York City.
Yet what makes Lucky Guy feel so special isn’t quite the ease with which it conjures up the atmosphere of a newsroom and New York in the late 20th century, but rather, how it grounds those iconic totems in an unexpected emotional resonance, derived partly from McAlary’s story’s uncanny resemblance to Ephron’s.
However, McAlary himself is far less relatable when the show begins, as he’s introduced as something of a loveable rogue, and it’s a testament to Hanks’ willingness to turn his good guy image on its ear that he’s this eager to explore some of McAlary’s unsavory qualities. That’s not to say that he’s ever at risk of becoming truly unlikeable, but he can be a big-headed son-of-a-bitch all the same, with something of a drinking problem and a desire to see his name on the front page that isn’t exactly healthy. Hanks still manages to imbue McAlary with a gregarious charm that makes you root for him even as he frustrates you, and one of the many pleasures of Ephron’s script is observing his gradual journey to self-awareness. Even as the world and city change around him, rapidly, McAlary tends to remain McAlary in an all-too believable way.
And that rapidity of New York’s evolution from the 1980s to the 1990s is beautifully captured on stage, with the snappy interplay of Ephron’s writing matched in the show’s fluid, brisk direction, from Broadway veteran George C. Wolfe. TV screens deliver information to both the audience and the reporters on stage, jumps between tabloid offices feel speedy but not jarring, and a cleverly placed “No Smoking” sign heralds the shift from one decade to another. In less capable hands, it’s all could feel a little too busy, but Wolfe makes the show’s propulsive nature exhilarating instead of showy.
It’s a marriage of Ephron’s fleet literary sensibility with the heightened stylization of fellow New York newspaper stories such as Sweet Smell of Success, and it proves to be a natural one, even as Ephron’s personal connection to the material becomes evident in the third act. McAlary chased the biggest story of his career while undergoing treatment for colon cancer, and Ephron completed the play shortly before passing on from complications of leukemia. But without spoiling anything, Lucky Guy finds a sort of transcendence in how it chooses to defy the traditional disease narrative to find strength in the serenity of writing, and the lasting power of the communities surrounding it. For the woman who lived by the notion that “everything is copy,” it’s fitting that she seemingly found such solace in the story of someone else who dedicated their life to putting words to the page.