NEW YORK - Leave it to Nora Ephron to write a play involving police brutality, cancer and one of the world's most famously cynical professions - and make it a romantic comedy.
The hero of her swan song, Lucky Guy (* * * ½ out of four), which opened Monday at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, dies at the end, as do other men; but that's a mere technicality. In tracing the colorful, controversial career of the late journalist Mike McAlary, Ephron - who lost her own battle with leukemia last year - left us a work that is, in its way, as buoyantly entertaining and uplifting as the thinking women's (and men's) chick flicks that made her one of the most successful screenwriters of the late 20th century.
Guy's milieu is vastly different, and more testosterone-fueled, from that of When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless In Seattle, but it's one Ephron knew: In the 1960s, she worked as a reporter at the New York Post, one of the tabloids where McAlary made his name two decades later.
The play is, in fact, a valentine to that world, as it was then - before social media and the 24/7 news cycle - and the city that was so much a part of it. If there are tinges of sentimentality, director George C. Wolfe and a robust cast led by Tom Hanks, in his Broadway debut, keep the tone appropriately gritty and the pace vigorous.
Ephron's dialogue requires the actors to verbally joust and parry with varying degrees of playfulness and aggression, as the characters, many of them sharing McAlary's vocation, endeavor to tell his story from their own perspectives. All aim to draw the audience in as they would a reader, often delivering their lines in boldface.
Were the players less skilled, the effect might be hokey, or exhausting; but supple veterans such as Peter Gerety and Courtney B. Vance, as editors who champion and clash with McAlary, are at once credible and magnetic as they shift from heated interaction to animated asides.
The actor whose name sits above the marquee proves equally adroit. McAlary, whose columns could be as unsparing on alleged crime victims as they were on rogue cops, made his share of professional and personal missteps; and Hanks shows us his capacity for arrogance and recklessness.
But the actor also makes McAlary's human fallibility part of his appeal, bringing to the role a crustier version of the unmannered charm that made Hanks one of Hollywood's most likable leading men. That's a key asset here, as something like it surely helped McAlary form the regular-guy bonds that fed his biggest scoops.
The real star of Lucky Guy, though, is the Manhattan of Ephron's young adulthood, and McAlary's: a seedy, mystical place, however idealized, where men did battle in Google-free newsrooms and bonded after hours in smoke-filled bars.
In the more sterile Times Square of 2013, that unlikely love story is a bracing tonic indeed.