Watching "Lucky Guy" is like peeking in on a lost world.
Not just because it's the last major work written by Nora Ephron, although that's part of it. Though no one but her closest intimates knew it at the time, Ephron was battling cancer when she wrote the play, and it can be read -- or, for those lucky enough to get a ticket, seen -- as her statement on how to face death. (Answer: Chasing a cursor across the screen like your life depends on it.)
And not just because it's about Mike McAlary, a larger-than-life reporter and columnist for the New York City tabloids (all of them -- they kept hiring him away from one another) who died way too young. Don't be fooled by the familiar-looking 56-year-old playing him onstage. McAlary, portrayed by Tom Hanks in the show, was just 41 when he died of colon cancer, on Christmas Day 1998. A year earlier, he'd won the Pulitzer for breaking the Abner Louima story.
No, "Lucky Guy" feels like a telegram from history because the newspapers it celebrates don't exist anymore. Not like they used to.
Gone are the days when a single columnist could steer the municipal conversation with shoe-leather reporting on police malfeasance. McAlary's colleagues in the play express their awe at his ability to get the "wood" -- front-page headlines, in type so big you had to set them in wood -- for days on end with his explosive columns. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine those gritty dispatches from the city's jails and precincts knocking Lindsay Lohan off page 1. And the printers sure as hell don't use wood anymore.
McAlary and his buddies prided themselves on giving voice to the working class. Remember the working class? They're still here, but nobody seems all that interested in hearing what they have to say. Today's city tabloids are more reminiscent of their supermarket cousins than their muckraking ancestors. In Ephron's telling, McAlary once got beat up by an old friend outraged by his decision to do a puff profile of Donald Trump. The tabloids were supposed to make rich slobs like Trump feel the heat of the street, not blow smoke up their asses.
But times were changing. It was the 80s. Greed was good, no matter what Oliver Stone had in mind when he gave that line to Michael Douglas. McAlary wasn't an activist; he was a columnist! If readers wanted Trump, by God he was going to give it to them. So that's one way things changed. In the Reagan era, we became fascinated by the rich all over again. It's a fascination that continues.
And then came the Internet. Instead of getting their news from one or more newspapers, people starting getting it online. Suddenly, it didn't matter so much what one guy wrote in one newspaper. Suddenly, everybody had a platform -- which was great news for many people, but not for people who had worked their whole lives to take over Jimmy Breslin's chair. Then again, McAlary died just two years after The New York Times launched its website. He missed most of the fun, and it's possible he would have thrived in this new ecosystem. He certainly had the ego to be an Internet star.
Look, I don't want to romanticize this world any more than it's already been romanticized. For one thing, I wasn't there; for another, those who were probably wouldn't like me very much, since I write stuff like this and this. Still, I confess that, watching the play, I envied these guys the certainty of their paths, even as I worried about their long-term prospects (not to mention their livers).
From where I sat, it looked as if they'd lived through a golden age, where the rules were clear and all you had to do was live by them: learn the ropes, develop your sources, write the story, get the wood.
We are so much freer today. Anyone can be a columnist. Anyone can "commit journalism," as New York Times media columnist David Carr likes to say. But figuring out what to do, how to do it and, above all, how to get paid for it -- that's the hard part.
It's the same all over. So many paths to prosperity have disappeared. If what you do can be reduced to ones and zeros, watch out.
You should see "Lucky Guy." Tom Hanks is as good as he's ever been, and that's no small praise, since Broadway is an unforgiving medium. The supporting cast is full of fine actors you'll recognize without always knowing why -- veterans like Peter Scolari (Bosom Buddies, Girls), Maura Tierney (ER), Christopher McDonald (Happy Gilmore), Peter Gererty (The Wire), Courtney B. Vance (The Hunt for Red October) and Michael Gaston (Inception).
Maybe you'll feel the way I did: envious of these journalistic rock stars, who enjoyed notoriety and middle-class wages for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Or maybe you'll feel like the man a row behind me. I overheard him saying to his wife that he'd seen the play twice already and knew some of the reporters it depicts. When it ended, he had tears pouring down his cheeks.
He'd lost that world all over again.
This story appears in Issue 44 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, April 12.