Liz Smith: Broadway Bravos

nora-ephronplaybill“BUT for many years I was in love with journalism. I loved the city room. I loved the pack. I loved smoking and drinking scotch and playing dollar poker. I didn’t know much about anything and I was in a profession where you didn’t have to. I loved the speed. I loved the deadlines. I loved that you wrapped the fish. You can’t make this stuff up, I used to say.

“I’d known since I was a child that I was going to live in New York eventually, and that everything in between would be just an intermission. I’d spent all those years imagining what New York was going to be like. I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live, a place where if you really wanted something you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to know, a place where I might be able to become the only thing worth being, a journalist.

“And I’d turned out to be right.”

This is Nora Ephron‘s preface in the theater Playbill for her drama “Lucky Guy” starring Tom Hanks.

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I HAVE been dreading going to Nora’s last work of art for weeks although I loved and admired her as much as I was ever allowed to and that goes double and triple
for her star onstage in the person of actor Tom Hanks — one of the credible real leading men of Hollywood. And a fabulous human being.

McAlaryNora’s play is based both factually and fictionally on the energetic and controversial tabloid reporter-columnist of the recentpast, Mike McAlary. I knew McAlary only too well in my 19 years of working at the New York Daily News. And after that at Newsday and the New York Post. He was no friend to me when we were both working at the News in the late ’70s and ’80s.

McAlary was a professional Irish tough guy who liked to stand around in bars singing, stamping his feet and being A # 1 in the boys club when it came to real reporting and later star columning. (That is the showmanship part of this play. It seems only to have three or four female characters in it. They are splendid women in the real life persons of Maura Tierney, and then Deirdre Lovejoy playing several key parts.) The men are glorious, especially Courtney B. Vance, the important character as McAlary’s editor who keeps advancing the play. In fact, there isn’t a weakness in all of the giant cast. (I cite especially Peter Scolari who was Tom Hanks’ partner in the TV series “Bosom, Buddies.”)

Our male star, played to a T as McAlary by Hanks, had no use for the show biz movie gossip side of his own tabloid business and in real life expressed his distaste for me expressly in devastating columns.

When I learned of this and that my editors were killing his work in this vein, I urged them to let him have his say in print and quit spiking the attacking columns. But if memory serves, it was the editor Gil Spencer who said to me, “Forget freedom of speech, Liz. Mike McAlary is not yet running this newspaper!” It was interesting to have a declared enemy at the time. Just as, in the play, McAlary has an unusual friend in the attorney Eddie Hayes, who gets him out of trouble and into more money, houses and cars as the columnist fights his way up the ranks. (Eddie Hayes was at the opening and is played to popular acclaim throughout. Actor Christopher McDonald even looks like him.)

Did I say that this is a story about New York at its core and if you had the ambition, the chutzpah, the chops for life here where it can be lived to the fullest  — up and down — then you will love it, because Nora’s play is a tribute to all that!)

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McAlary made himself aggressively important whatever newspaper he was working for. He bounced from the News to the Post and back and sometimes to Newsday (just as I did) so the stagecraft was all catnip to me. The story proceeds through lots of newsroom drama, conflicts between writers and bosses and owners and men arguing, fighting, slugging, correcting one another and getting it all on the record. McAlary had the usual/unusual qualities, a go-getting, ruthless but human side that put him in the right if sometimes dubiously ethical, as he had many a reporting adventure. And he was so ambitious. His true target was the great star Jimmy Breslin.

This eccentric writer was my friend and I loved him and his family. And Breslin went on doing okay without McAlary’s approval. But you can see that as far as I was concerned, I was prejudiced and my approach to Nora’s “hero” was different. (But Nora and I always had real gossip to share, recipes, and mutual friends to love, so I didn’t even know she was entertaining an idea of a play about Mike McAlary.)

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This work, brilliantly directed by George C. Wolfe and with moveable parts in a set by David Rockwell reflects Nora’s own love of her tabloid past. Let’s give a nod here to the perfect casting of absolutely everybody in this large ensemble and to Nora herself who imagined or remembered it all. The tough guys are all even tougher than McAlary, with Tom Hanks playing him as a rising star, an egocentric moneymaker columnist who has his hits and his errors and ends up hoisted by his own bad luck and a tragi-heroic fate.

This play reflects Nora’s own early days of working for The New York Post under the wealthy owner Dorothy Schiff and even though she segued a way into writing for magazines, doing clever brilliant books on cooking, love and loss, and eventually made her real mark as a screen writer and movie director, her love for this early genre shines through. Much of the play is truly funny, dropping real names like Giuliani, Trump, and the then unknown Abner Louima, a man assaulted, brutalized and sodomized by McAlary’s mortal heroes/enemies/sources — New York cops. This finally won McAlary the Pulitzer Prize and his place in journalism history.

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The play reflects Nora’s own work life and her tragic early death, as it does McAlarys. (A scene of morphine overkill in dying patients is hard to take yet it is the funniest true thing I’ve seen onstage in ages.) It takes a wonderful writer to meld tragedy with comedy in one little scene. Nora had become an expert on both, right at the near moment of her own exit, just when the play was coming to fruition.

And think on her brilliant choice of Tom Hanks, who has already played a gay man dying of AIDS, a mentally deficient lovable success, a man turned into a boy, a sexy guy hiding in a girl’s rooming house operating in drag, a soldier on the Normandy beach, etc. etc. So of course he can play McAlary who only wanted what everyone who comes to or grows up in New York wants  — to become a star at any cost … an important person known to other important persons … a self-realized success … someone at the top just waiting for fate, the accident, the illness that will take it all away.

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I just loved “Lucky Guy.” It’s almost like a musical, it is so brash, so real, so true, so vulgar, so fast, so recognizable. Like Nora Ephron. She is gone but even departed and receiving deserved applause at the end when they show her picture onstage … she has realized a final ambition. She succeeds as a wonderful playwright. She scores again. There was no one like her. There will be rising McAlarys down through the ages, people with his ambitions and nerve, willing to work extra hard while awaiting their fate.

There will, however, never be another Nora Ephron.

P.S. If you think there is no one to love in “Lucky Guy,” how about actress Tierney who plays McAlary’s wife. She is quietly appealing.

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This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 4/3/13

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