Ephron was best known for movies she wrote and directed, like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail. She died of cancer in January. Her final work opened on Broadway April 1.
Several years ago, when Ephron handed Hanks an early draft of her play about tabloid journalist Mike McAlary, he had a pretty strong reaction.
“I said ‘Well, that guy’s sure a jerk.’ And she laughed and she said, ‘Well, he kind of was, but he was kind of great, too,’” Hanks recalled.
What appealed to Ephron about the sometimes ethically-challenged, hard-drinking McAlary was that he came from a world dear to her heart. She moved to New York as a young woman and landed a job at the New York Post.
Hanks said, in some sense, she never stopped being a reporter.
“I think Nora rode her life as a journalist, literally as far as it possibly could,” he said. “And then, when it came time, she took those same journalistic sensibilities and turned to books and the same journalistic sensibilities are in her films. Everything she’s ever done, everything I’ve ever done with her, has really been sort of like, about reporting on modern times.”
The play is set in the newsrooms, streets and bars of New York during the 1980s and 90s, when the city was facing an epidemic of crack cocaine as well as police corruption.
“It’s a play about the death of newspaper culture and the characters who filled that world and the characters who replaced them and a sensibility that replaced them,” said director George C. Wolfe. “I think, at the end of the thing, a love poem to journalism.”
Audiences who know Ephron from her romantic comedies, like Sleepless in Seattle, may be surprised to encounter such a testosterone-fueled work.
“She said, ‘What’s more fun than hanging out in the bar with the guys?’” Wolfe recalled. “And the sort of intimate knowledge that she brings about all of that is really fun.”
Many of the play’s characters are based on real life personalities, some of whom are still alive. Others, like McAlary, are not. He died of cancer at the age of 41. Hap Hairston, who died of a heart attack in 2002, and was one of McAlary’s editors and best friends, is played by Courtney B. Vance.
“Their work was much better because of his deft hand and it’s a bit like a marriage, that editor and writer relationship,” said Vance. “And so he was very, very good at what he did and when they separated, it was hard on both of them.”
The play follows McAlary through his rise to become the best paid columnist in the New York tabloids, the near-fatal car crash caused by his own drunk driving, his reporting missteps and rehabilitation. His last major story, about a notorious case of police abuse in 1997, earned him the Pulitzer Prize, but he died of colon cancer just months later.
For Hanks, working on a play about a man who died of cancer, written by a woman who died of cancer before she could see it staged, feels poignant.
“Well, selfishly, I did this to hang out with Nora,” he said. “Go off and, you know, be on Broadway finally and do it with Nora and she’d be there every day and we’d be batting around ideas.”
One of Ephron’s sons, also a journalist, is proud of Lucky Guy, but it’s a bittersweet experience for him.
“I miss my mother,” said Jacob Bernstein, “and that supersedes a play that she would’ve written or a movie that she would’ve directed, all of that stuff.”