Backstage at ‘Lucky Guy,’ a Character Watches Tom Hanks Keep the Cast Loose

July 02, 2013


Backstage at the Broadhurst Theater, the voice of Jane Grey came out of the intercom at precisely 7:30 Monday evening with the same call she has made eight times a week since the beginning of March.

“Half-hour,” said Ms. Grey, the production stage manager of the play “Lucky Guy.”

The custom in theater is that cast members note the time, and maybe head for dressing rooms.

That is not how it has worked at the Broadhurst since “Lucky Guy” settled there on March 1, led by the movie star Tom Hanks, making his Broadway debut.

At the instant “half-hour” was declared on Monday, a conga beat rose through the stairwell leading to the dressing rooms. A small riot of noise followed: duck whistles, kazoos, harmonicas, horns and, for those with nothing in their mouths but tongues, shouts of “Rise. Rise. Rise.”

A mylar helium-filled balloon floated from the bottom of the stairs, cheered on, it seemed, by the bedlam. Once the balloon tapped into the skylight, the din was dialed back.

Then Mr. Hanks, bleary-eyed with a bug but not about to break a streak of having made every curtain, stepped back into his dressing room and cranked up “You’re No Good,” sung by Linda Ronstadt.

“It’s the next one of the 57 things that have to happen before every show,” Mr. Hanks explained.

“Lucky Guy” closes Wednesday night after selling pretty much every seat in the house since the doors opened. It set records, then broke them, for highest weekly ticket sales by a play, according to the Broadway League. The play was written by Nora Ephron, now deceased, who was persuaded by Colin Callender, the show’s executive producer, to salvage an unmade film script.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, it tells the story of a real person, the tabloid newspaper columnist Mike McAlary, as he left a trail of scoops, folly and glory before dying of cancer at 41 in 1998. And to my eyes, it told a lot of truth in great style.

As a friend of McAlary’s, an alumnus of two New York tabloids and a character in the play, I got a chance to look under the hood. The noise is only one ritual.

At two minutes before the curtain goes up, “places” is called. The cast troops onstage. Courtney B. Vance, winner of the Tony for featured actor in a play, lights an imaginary fire. Songs are hummed, silly walks are walked, and the entire cast recites a pair of highly vulgar sentences, totaling five words that during the show are performed operatically by the actor Deirdre Lovejoy. A few feet away, the audience in $300 orchestra seats is none the wiser.

The ritual racket-making at the half-hour mark began when Peter Gerety, one of the actors, handed out duck whistles after being foiled at an attempt to introduce one into the play.

“Tom Hanks was the first one to join me in using it at half-hour,” Mr. Gerety said. “He’s basically a 13-year-old boy.”

Mr. Hanks didn’t argue. “I’m about 40 years behind the curve,” he said.

But as 13-year-olds go, a pretty industrious one. For the first weeks of previews, the mirror in Mr. Hanks’s dressing room was so covered with pages of script changes that he could barely see his face. To watch him, at age 56, keep the words and staging straight as they changed almost nightly was like watching Bruce Springsteen slide across the 2009 Super Bowl stage on his 59-year-old knees.

Before the show opened, some of the actors knew Mr. Hanks, but others were wary about even auditioning. “I figured that with him on top, he’d get a great cast, even if he turned out to be complicated,” the actor Michael Gaston said. “He turned out to be great.”

After hearing backstage talk about baseball, Mr. Hanks booked seats at Citi Field for a Monday night Yankees-Mets game and invited the cast and crew. “People came for baseball, but it was another chance to hang with each other, on a night off,” Mr. Hanks said.

One afternoon, he turned up to take the lead in a staged reading of a play by an understudy, Joe Forbrich. When another understudy, Thomas Hammond, made his debut in late May, Mr. Hanks, channeling his inner 13-year-old, kept Mr. Hammond loose by handing him a note on stage. That wasn’t unusual, as the note was part of the show, but the contents weren’t. “Here are your errors so far,” it began, asserting that Mr. Hammond’s fly was open. It was signed “Mike McAlary.”

A goofy actor. Also, one who, in accepting the best-actor Oscar in 1994, before marriage equality was remotely plausible, thanked two gay men — a teacher and classmate — and wished before the world that his children could have such people in their lives.

Later this week, Mr. Hanks said, he will return to California and, with his wife, Rita Wilson, help with a new granddaughter. “I’m going to recover,” Mr. Hanks said. “But it’ll be tough — Wednesdays and Saturdays around 2 o’clock, I’m going to feel like I should be doing something right now.”

By Jim Dwyer

Source : The New York Times