A Night at the Theater: “Lucky Guy”

My sister was in town this weekend and we hatched last-minute plans to see a Broadway show Saturday evening. We failed in our attempts to get lottery tickets for Matilda or Book of Mormon, but were able to get standing room only tickets for Lucky Guya play written by Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks as New York City newspaper columnist and police reporter Mike McAlary, who, among other career highlights, won a Pulitzer in 1998 for his reporting on a Haitian immigrant who was assaulted by police in Brooklyn.

Of course, we wanted to see this play because Tom Hanks stars, but I also wanted to see it because it’s Nora Ephron’s last work. When I think of the ideal writer and the ideal New Yorker, I think of Nora Ephron. Plus, she wrote When Harry Met Sally…, a movie I adore.

lucky guyLucky Guy was phenomenal, and based on what I know of Nora Ephron – from several of her films, her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” and a handful of articles I read that were written shortly after her death – so much of her own life experience was infused into this story and its characters. It’s a true story, but in its presentation and dialogue, I saw elements of Ephron and another character she developed.

What captivated me most about McAlary’s story was how deeply he felt that he had been born to be a New York newspaper writer. Inside the Lucky Guy playbill was a kind of “bonus” playbill, a large cardstock addition that included an excerpt from Ephron’s book “I Remember Nothing,” titled “Journalism: A Love Story.”

An excerpt of the excerpt:

I’d known since I was a child that I was going to 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.

When I read this in the program, worlds collided in my head. Nora Ephron felt this way. She wrote a whole play about a man who felt this way. And she developed a character of her own who felt this way: Sally Albright, Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally….

An early scene in When Harry Met Sally… has the title characters driving out of Chicago, en route to New York City to start their lives after college graduation. They’ve just met – Harry’s girlfriend is a mutual friend – and Harry tries to make conversation. Sally’s response to “Why don’t you tell me the story of your life?” is infused with the same eager, optimistic, “I was born to be a journalist in New York City” spirit that Ephron and McAlary possessed.

The first 40ish seconds here are what I’m getting at:

I may not be a newspaper reporter, but I identify with that sense of feeling like you were born to be in New York, at least for a time. Sally Albright’s line, “Nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York,” is part of the reason I wanted to come here in the first place. And I couldn’t help loving Lucky Guy because that same sense of conviction drove Mike McAlary.

Knowing Ephron wrote the play while she was dying added another dimension to my understanding of the story. For most of the second act, McAlary knows he’s living with cancer. Ephron’s script shows how he copes with the pain of treatment. One scene I found especially powerful shows McAlary and one of his editors, who was also in the hospital for a major heart surgery, talking to each other as they figured out how to raise their morphine levels. As the dosage goes up, their pain dulls, their eyes widen, their mouths open, and they talk euphorically about how they’ve achieved their dreams in journalism. In that brief moment, death has no hold on them.

I read Ephron’s book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” a couple summers ago, and remember her talking a lot about dreading and preparing for death. I wondered if Ephron had written the play as a coping mechanism, or if she wrote some of her own fears about death into McAlary’s character. When I got home, I discovered a March New York Times magazine piece written by her son Jacob Bernstein: “…part of what she was trying to do by writing about someone else’s death was to understand her own,” he wrote. In a way, this play was therapy.

Those were just two elements of McAlary’s character that stood out to me, but there was so much more to love about Lucky Guy, from the cast to the dialogue to the set design that scrolled through headlines of McAlary’s columns. I also love how everyone clapped for Tom Hanks when he first came onstage. They’re clapping, of course, because he’s a talented and accomplished actor, but I always wonder if a little of the applause comes from a sense of wonder that this larger-than-life movie star is actually a real person, here in the flesh, with me tonight. Part of Broadway’s allure, I suppose.

I highly recommend Lucky Guy if you’re in NYC before it closes July 3. Standing room tickets were only $29 (but only go on sale if the show’s sold out), and I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a steal that was.

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