First Nighter: Tom Hanks Takes Broadway in Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy

This theater image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows Tom Hanks as tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, center left, during a pe
This theater image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows Tom Hanks as tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, center left, during a performance of "Lucky Guy," playing at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus)

Tom Hanks lands on Broadway. The two-time Oscar-winner is headlining Lucky Guy at the Broadhurst. And as anyone who knows about theater behavior nowadays will easily predict, standing-room-only audiences can't wait to give their idol one of those all but obligatory standing ovations.

Of course, they're not only leaping to their feet for Hanks' performance in Nora Ephron's charismatic play but for the entire list of movies he's made -- including Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle -- where they couldn't ovate him through the closing credits. When they stood then, it merely meant they were leaving the auditorium.

Nevertheless, this rapacious standing-o is assuredly deserved -- more so than many of the hugely undeserving upright ovations that many performers and productions get when people pay so much for their tickets they automatically rise as testimony to themselves that the ticket price they paid was worth it.

For his rousing response, Hanks is impersonating Mike McAlary (1957-1998), who gained notoriety and acclaim during the '80s and '90s as a New York Newsday reporter and then New York Daily News and New York Post columnist, whose suave way of courting the City's police gave him access to eventual headline stories few others could get -- not even his idol-then-nemesis Jimmy Breslin.

McAlary wasn't known much beyond New York City. Therefore, he might have become a largely forgotten man had Ephron, who died last June, not headed this story to Broadway after trying to have it made as a movie about someone whom the Hollywood studios must have figured wasn't bankable. Nevertheless, McAlary was so successful within City limits that his galvanic stories regularly commanded front-page headlines, or "wood," the industry term for headlines with letters so tall they needed to be carved from wood.

Hanks, in a bushy mustache, plays McAlary as a likable though aggressive, not to say, pushy guy, a kind of life-force who sometimes had his enemies among the editors and reporters with whom he circulated but who also had the even longer-term respect of appreciative colleagues. Married to Alice (Maura Tierney, good in a relatively thankless part) with children and living for a while outside the City in Bellport, he had quite a soaring and salutary career.

He exposed corruption repeatedly but in 1996 got into hot water insisting a young woman's rape charge was phony. He was let off the hook when it was confirmed he'd been misinformed by his sources. Then in 1997 he redeemed himself by scooping the Abner Louima police-abuse story and winning a Pulitzer Prize for the dedicated legwork.

As McAlary, Hanks takes charge of the stage, surely proving to any potential skeptics that he's as strong on stage as he is on screen. With unlimited stamina and carrying his own inner spotlight, he shows McAlary as gruff and tough and then moderately less so after recovering from a near-death 1993 automobile accident when drunk and later developing cancer from which he recovered only briefly.

With the ultra-assured performance, Hanks has to be a Tony-nom cinch and an on-odds favorite to win. (After all, there are television ratings to be considered.) Yet, there must be an asterisk affixed to Hanks's indisputably affecting performance -- while keeping in mind it's unlikely Lucky Guy would be where it is without him attached.

The actor is now 56, whereas McAlary died just 10 days after turning 41. But Hanks, having decided to take on the role, doesn't even try to present the wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter McAlary is meant to be as Ephron begins her tale. Therefore, something is certainly lost when Hanks doesn't conjure the youthful brashness McAlary exhibited at his outset or the arrogance of a thirtysomething feeling his oats while others held valid objections to his manner.

With that acknowledged, it's also necessary to point out that audiences reveling in "Tom Hanks on Broadway" (there's a wood headline for you) won't mind any missing elements, nor are they likely to care that Ephron's script is not first-rate drama but more like sketchy stage biography. Surely, Ephron -- who apparently didn't know McAlary but did her research diligently -- could have probed deeper than she did.

But she's savvy about her framework. During one of McAlary's chats with favorite editor John Cotter (Peter Gerety), the importance of facts in reporting comes up, and Cotter dismisses their primary importance, saying "It's how you tell the story."

Well, it looks as if both Ephron and director George C. Wolfe have taken the comment to heart, because their telling of the story couldn't be slicker. Wolfe has always been partial to projections and sliding panels, and as supplied by set designer David Rockwell and the Batwin-Robin Productions, Inc. work, they're here in abundance, contributing to the winning results.

Actually, Ephron's overriding inspiration may be that she chooses to tell the story as newsmen and newswomen swap stories with each other. Her attention-getting opening has a group of the fellows singing at a bar who then begin to recount Mike McAlary anecdotes. It's an energetic narration that McAlary and Alice join as well as lawyer-agent Eddie Hayes (Christopher McDonald).

In addition to Hanks' turn speaking, editors Cotter, Hap Hairston (Courtney P. Vance), Gerald Nachman (Richard Masur), reporters and columnists -- byline names like Mike Daly (Peter Scolari, Hanks' "Bosom Buddies" buddy) and Bob Drury (Danny Mastrogiorgio) -- proclaim their recollections, and the actors couldn't be more colorful proclaiming them.

So much so that Lucky Guy takes on a mythic quality -- a sort of Reporters Beatifying Their Own texture -- as if knowing who Mike McAlary is (or was) doesn't matter. The importance is in recognizing the hero of the tale told as representative of the profession being celebrated.

Incidentally, in all the attention Lucky Guy is getting, no one seems to recall The Wood, Dan Klores's 2011 play at the Rattlestick, which was also about Mike McAlary and which was written by someone who definitely knew him. Though comparisons may not be called for, I'd say one aspect of the late columnist's reporting with which The Wood deals more effectively is the Louima event.

Never mind. Tom Hanks in person is on the Great White Way -- and thanks to him and his name on the marquee, Nora Ephron has a final fling there. So you go figure who the true lucky guy really is -- counting yourself, as a Tom Hanks lover, among the candidates.