In an essay called “Journalism: A Love Story” from her 2010 collection I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron described working as a “clipper” for Newsweek shortly after college. Along with the other young women — it was a girls-only position — she cut thousands of articles from the nation’s papers and routed them to the relevant departments. “Being a clipper was a horrible job,” she wrote, “and to make matters worse, I was good at it.”
The job and the magazine are now equally obsolete, and Ephron, to the horror of everyone who knew her and plenty who didn’t, is gone too. Yet here we have, in her play Lucky Guy, opening nine months after her death at 71, the paradoxical result of that drudgery, that unwanted aptitude, that love story. With an insider’s devastating combination of repulsion and affection, she’s written a most unlikely thing: a play about journalism, or really about telling stories, that is as rich and rough and elegiac and fun as the lost world it re-creates.
It’s easy to see why she was drawn to the material, which she started to develop in 1999, and why, over the years, it kept coming back to her like one of those clippings torn for later use. It is, after all, a good yarn. Set amid the tabloid wars of the eighties and nineties, when New York was a mess, Lucky Guy tells the story of Mike McAlary, whose rise from hack sportswriter to face-on-the-bus-ad columnist is a classic Greek drama (albeit Irish) waiting to happen. It doesn’t wait long. Hubris makes its appearance almost before triumph, and the two thereafter are jumbled together, as McAlary rowdies his way from the biggest gets to the biggest failures, with the biggest contracts and, in the year he died of colon cancer at 41, the Pulitzer prize for his reporting on the police brutalization of Abner Louima. Whether he was a great talent or just a great hungry hog of an egoist, and whether those things are much different, is one of the questions that Ephron, working in a mode far different from that of her tie-up-the-plot-strings romcoms, lets splat on the stage for the audience to sort out.
That she originally intended the material as an HBO movie seems hard to fathom now. Luckily, that plan collapsed; Ephron’s approach, in which the story is often narrated directly by McAlary and his tabloid colleagues as a kind of Greek chorus, wouldn’t have worked on film. It’s not such a sure shot for the stage either; good yarns are often dull theater. (See this season’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) But one of the miracles of this production, directed by George C. Wolfe, is that it is thrilling instead. Working with scenic designer David Rockwell and the lighting team of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Wolfe uses every trick in his considerable playbook to enhance the material’s theatricality. The choking cigarette miasma of the newsroom is produced by a stagehand casually wielding a fog machine; the fourth wall is violated so often with streams of verbiage it might as well be one of the graffitied subway cars (“No one should come to New York”) featured on the show curtain. With its black-and-white and halftone aesthetic, its bold foregrounds and disappearing backgrounds, the play looks like the tabloids felt.
This is not just a decorative fillip or a camouflage stratagem for a talky script, but an expression of a truth about the connection between journalism and theater: the two forms of storytelling have at least their dangers in common. Ephron’s lifelong love of both did not prevent her from seeing that they hover, necessarily and in exactly the same way, close to the line of falsehood. As McAlary ignored factual doubts for a good story, Ephron, after a great deal of interviewing, condensed timelines, rejiggered characters, and imagined conversations. There is, she seems to imply, something more accurate than the facts. Thus when McAlary pays lip service to journalism’s foundation in “the truth,” Ephron has one of his editors, the perma-drunk John Cotter, say, “You’re making me sick. I may throw up.” To Cotter, the only facts are the ones in the paper’s morgue, where old news stories and notes are kept; the rest is “how you tell the story.”
It’s no accident that the punctilious Ephron should let this rumpled reprobate speak most closely for her; the conflict between knowing it all and loving it all was the story of her life. In her youth, she believed she was temperamentally suited to tabloid work “because of my cynicism and emotional detachment,” she wrote in the “Journalism” essay; “I sometimes allowed that these were character flaws, but I didn’t really believe it.” Later, she came to understand that “emotional detachment and cynicism only get you so far.”
What’s most moving about Lucky Guy is that it offers, in the character of McAlary, exactly that tentative redemption: It’s a story of naïveté undone by experience and then brought halfway back. If that’s sentimental and self-regarding — the play has one or two sticky moments — well, the sentimentality and self-regard of the metropolitan scribbling class were also part of Ephron’s brief. Cities no less than hacks can be redeemed; journalists in particular have the chance to tell a new story, about us and about themselves, every day. And that chance may be life-or-death — because of course Lucky Guy is unavoidably a story about mortality as well, about dying young at whatever age. Perhaps as she worked on her final revisions of the play despite the encroachments of leukemia, Ephron felt like McAlary, who bolted a chemo treatment to race to his first interview with Louima. The trick was to keep writing. In that sense the play’s title, ironically enough, is not ironic, or not only ironic.
Because by any standards except the existential ones, Ephron was damned lucky; few writers write their best work last and manage to go out with a bang. She was lucky, too, in having eventually convinced Tom Hanks, who had been reluctant, to star as McAlary; his presence is obviously the reason the play is on Broadway at all. And while it’s no little compliment to his performance to say it is as good as that of his castmates, who are excellent from top to bottom, the triumph belongs to Ephron and Wolfe, who are almost one entity here. In shaping the final working script, Wolfe had access to Ephron’s drafts and notes, and did no more or less than what Ephron, as engaged an author as ever there was, would clearly have approved. In any case the changes were vetted by her husband, Nicholas Pileggi, himself a renowned journalist.
The meta-story here makes it difficult to separate one’s response to Lucky Guy from one’s response to Ephron, but it’s really not necessary to do so. All writing, all feeling, is analogy, and if truth is unknowable, at least you can pick details that sound right. In one of the play’s most original and weirdly exciting scenes, we see McAlary’s editor Hap Hairston punching up his column; the words are projected behind them as they work. A plain diner becomes an “all-night diner.” The rain, formerly unspecified, starts “pouring down.” An unknown number of cups of coffee becomes exactly eight. Is any of that true? It is now.
Lucky Guy is at the Broadhurst Theater through June 16.