NEW YORK — In the program for "Lucky Guy," the play Nora Ephron raced to complete before her death last year, there's a note by the author titled "Journalism: A Love Story."
That's a pretty good description of the drama, Ephron's valentine to New York City's smoke-filled, hangover-zonked newsrooms during the fierce tabloid wars of the 1980s and '90s.
This was the period when racial tensions were soaring, the crack epidemic was in full swing and the streets were so tough it wasn't always easy to tell the good guys from the bad. Chronicling this tumult were three pugnacious newspapers — the New York Post, the New York Daily News and the newcomer, New York Newsday — which fought for readers' attention subway car by subway car, their covers singling out heroes and villains in the town's cast of corkers.
The play, which opened Monday at the Broadhurst Theatre with a winning ensemble performance by Tom Hanks in his Broadway debut, magnificently conjures this lost era when ink-stained wretches ruled the world. Cup an ear and you might still be able to hear an editor shouting lines Ephron probably raided from her days as a New York Post reporter: "Where's my nun-rape? Who's got the subway slasher? I need the red meat. More red meat."
The dramatic path "Lucky Guy" travels down isn't quite as assured as the high-adrenaline milieu it resurrects. Filmmaker, essayist and beloved dinner party raconteur, Ephron was a master storyteller, though there are times when it seems like her script would rather be a screenplay. At other points the play loses itself in narration that vaguely sounds like the voice-over for a jazzed up PBS documentary, with various talking heads competing to tell their version of the McAlary story.
But this vibrantly acted production, directed by George C. Wolfe with his signature urban zip, does its best to mitigate the dramatic deficiencies by keeping the wider scene pulsating even when the protagonist's journey grows fuzzy or loses steam. The projections animating David Rockwell's kinetic sets only accelerate the staging's step.
Mike McAlary, Hanks' role, is all the things a tragic character is supposed to be — passionate, ambitious, morally complicated. But the play too often feels like a straight biography. Ephron dramatizes the major episodes of McAlary's career, allowing the headlines to guide her rather than her own insight into what made him tick.
His story certainly supplies enough rising and falling action for a Broadway play. A brash Irish-American journalist, he was determined to become the new Jimmy Breslin, keeping the city's straphangers engrossed in their own outrageous story. He succeeded, but his recklessness cost him.
His career never fully recovered from a series of columns in which, getting his information from misinformed police sources, he accused a rape victim of making false accusations. And although he won a Pulitzer for his Daily News columns exposing the heinous abuse of Abner Louima by New York police officers, his ending was a tragic one. He died of cancer at 41.
McAlary isn't a completely likable fellow, but some of the best plays ever written ("Oedipus Rex" and "King Lear," for starters) are dominated by figures that fill us with an uncomfortable ambivalence. And in any case, Hanks' Everyman charm renders the problem null and void. Not liking Hanks deserves a category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He doesn't sand down McAlary's rough edges and we're still more or less favorably disposed to the character.
McAlary's journey, however, lacks the heroic scope needed to keep us fully invested. He's not seeking greatness, he just wants to be scoring front page headlines. Being first matters more to him than being fair, and compromising comes naturally.
He disappoints his steadfast wife, Alice (Maura Tierney), by carousing with detectives and fellow reporters night after night. He has no loyalty to whatever newspaper happens to be employing him at the moment, jumping from one to the other and back again in an endless pursuit of a more lucrative deal. And all it takes for him to clean his conscience is a pat on the back or another lucky break.
When Abner Louima (Stephen Tyrone Williams) enters the picture, McAlary is undergoing chemotherapy in a battle for his life. He's been put through the wringer, medically and journalistically, but he still has a nose for an important story. And it is as much his opportunism as a columnist as it is his solidarity with ordinary Joes that earns him some professional redemption.
Ephron and Hanks, whose past collaborations ("Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail") one or two of you may have heard a little something about, seem to be on the same page with McAlary's character. Hanks' disciplined performance lends just enough sympathy — the humanity that occasionally moistens McAlary's eyes could never be confused with saintliness.
And when the writing gets a touch mawkish, as with McAlary's speech to his colleagues after learning of his Pulitzer win, Hanks wisely underplays the moment. His acting is at its most moving when he's not speaking at all, just wandering silently amid all of McAlary's second thoughts.
This is a team performance, and Wolfe has fielded a company of theatrical all-stars. Peter Gerety's whiskey-nipping newspaper veteran John Cotter, Courtney B. Vance's sharp-eyed city editor Hap Hairston and Christopher McDonald's lightly Mephistophelean lawyer Eddie Hayes are indispensably good. And Peter Scolari's ever-scribbling Michael Daly and Richard Masur in his two editor roles flesh out the newsroom authenticity.
The part of Alice is a bit stereotypical, but Tierney stands by her man with an unfussy charm and a strong suggestion of independence. She knows better than anyone that McAlary is flying too close to the sun, but she also knows that no matter how far he goes, he's still only a commuter train away.
The Broadhurst's marquee calls "Lucky Guy" "A New York Play," and this is both its strength and its limitation. But the glass seems more than half full to this Brooklyn-born critic. Ephron loved this city, and the city loves her back in this top-notch Broadway production.