I once got into a spirited but friendly debate with a fellow musical dramatist over a play—I won’t name either—which I liked very much and he didn’t. It was a play about true historical incidents in America of the 20th century, and our disagreement was over the storytelling. In it, characters periodically broke the fourth wall to editorialize and create perspective, but my opposite thought that the use of device still came off as bald narrative, and made the construction of the play seem transparent as opposed to invisible (which are not, of course, the same thing). “All through it,” he insisted, “[the playwright] was laying pipe, laying pipe.” (No, he did not mean that in its other more salacious context, so kindly slap that out of your head. What he meant was he felt the play never transcended delivery of the story to actual, full-blooded dramatization.)
So I wonder what he’d make of the late Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy, also about real-life figures, and in particular the title character, aka fabled, controversial New York City tabloid columnist Mike McAlary. It’s a play in which everybody breaks the fourth wall to comment, and not just to set up perspective but—flying in the face of every contemporary primer on the principles of dramaturgy—to actually tell you what happened in lieu of presenting actual scenes or dramatizing the connections between scenes. And it’s brazen, exposed and unapologetic. And mostly, Ms. Ephron gets away with it. And why?
Tone. Diction. Attitude. And above all the structural metaphor. It’s a play about reporters. And when they narrate, they’re reporting. It’s a “special delivery” if you will, and it knocks the rule book into a cocked hat.
But it wears out its welcome a little too, because when you celebrate reporting, you also celebrate the ambiguities of perception, the bouncing needle of the source-validity meter, the varying quality of research, the human fallibility of the knights in ink-stained armour—and that’s very much a part of Ms. Ephron’s play too, because McAlary embodied the extremes, going from meteoric rise to magnificent fuckup to redemptive hero leading to a Pulitzer Prize…culminating in death from cancer at the age of 41. And Ms. Efron gives her characters only as much depth as a newspaper profile will bear. Purposefully, I think, hoping that the play will provide cumulative dimension, like a good series of articles. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite land that way.
What does land, big-time, is a sense of gusto, of love for the outsized, prideful characters and of unabashed New York City jingoism, with the world of men very keenly observed. And when the play means to be funny, which is more often than not, it’s very funny.
Tom Hanks as McAlary isn’t giving a virtuoso performance by any stretch; he is what he (really) always was, an amiable, expert and seasoned light comedy player who can deliver the energy, the jokes and the message. His is a persona that can be (and has been) amplified by the intimacy movie cameras can provide, but on stage—and I don’t mean this as a put-down—he’s back to his Bosom Buddies sitcom wattage; only a little bigger than life, if significantly more nuanced and developed. But that amiability…that goes a long frikkin’ way.
The supporting cast would be any TV fanboy/fangirl’s dream roster, among them Maura Tierney, Christopher Macdonald, Richard Mausur, Dierdre Lovejoy, Courtney B. Vance, Peter Gerety—and even Hanks’s old Bosom Buddies co-star, Peter Scolari. The confluence alone makes the play an event and all of them are as on game as you’d expect. But the direction of George W. Wolfe, which has all the bells-and-whistles stop-the-presses energy of a special edition newsflash, may well push the evening over the line towards must-see-play-of-the-season.
In a way, the experience is a metaphor for McAlary himself. Flawed but exciting. And largely unforgettable.
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