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One of the Broadway season's most highly anticipated plays opens tonight. "Lucky Guy" stars Tom Hanks in his Broadway debut. It's also the last play written by his collaborator and friend, the late Nora Ephron. As Jeff Lunden reports, it's a salty, hard-edged departure for Ephron who's best known for her romantic comedy screenplays, including "When Harry Met Sally" and "Sleepless In Seattle."

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When Nora Ephron handed Tom Hanks an early draft of her play about tabloid journalist Mike McAlary several years ago, he had a pretty strong reaction.

TOM HANKS: I said, well, that guy's sure a jerk. I used another word besides jerk - I know what you can say on NPR. And she laughed and she said, well, he kind of was. But he was kind of great, too.

LUNDEN: What appealed to Ephron about the sometimes ethically challenged, hard-driving, hard-drinking McAlary was he came from a world that was dear to her heart. She moved to New York as a young woman and landed a job at the New York Post. Tom Hanks says, in some sense, she never stopped being a reporter.

HANKS: I think Nora rode her life as a journalist, literally as far as it possibly could. 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.

LUNDEN: The play is set in the tabloid newsrooms, streets and bars of New York during the 1980s and '90s, when the city was facing a crack epidemic and pockets of police corruption. But more than anything else, director George C. Wolfe says...

GEORGE WOLFE: 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. And it's just incredible. I think, at the end of the thing, a love poem to journalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "LUCKY GUY")

PETER GERETY: (as John Cotter) For example, what's your story, the story of McAlary?

HANKS: (as Mike McAlary) I am a newspaper reporter, and I love my job and I'm doing God's work. I'm serving the public. I'm telling people what happened yesterday. I'm telling them the facts. I'm rewarding the good guy and I'm putting the bad guys away. (Bleep) Cotter, there is such as thing as facts. There. That's my story.

GERETY: (as John Cotter) Your story is you're a kid with a bad case of Breslinitis. And you're probably never going to get over it.

HANKS: (as Mike McAlary) Well, that's how you'd tell the story.

GERETY: (as John Cotter) Exactly.

LUNDEN: "Lucky Guy" features an ensemble cast of 12 men and two women. Audiences who know Nora Ephron from her romantic comedies may be surprised to encounter such a testosterone-fueled work, with more profanity in the dialogue than a lot of David Mamet plays, says George Wolfe.

WOLFE: I don't know, I asked her some question and she said: What's more fun than hanging out in the bar with the guys? There's this incredible knowledge about boys that, you know, speaking, saying (bleep), which means I love you. Saying (bleep), which means I'm jealous of you; saying (bleep), which means I want to be you; and saying (bleep), which means I want to kill you. And they all change. And the sort of intimate knowledge that she brings about all of that is really fun. And it's been fun to play with.

LUNDEN: A lot of the play's characters are based on their real-life counterparts, some of whom are very much alive. And some, like McAlary, who passed away from cancer at the age of 41, are no longer with us. Hap Hairston, who died of a heart attack in 2002, was one of McAlary's editors and best friends. He's played by Courtney B. Vance.

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, as you know. And so he was very, very good at what he did. And when they separated, it was hard on both of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "LUCKY GUY")

HANKS: (as Mike McAlary) You like telling people if it wasn't for you there would be no Mike McAlary.

VANCE: (as Hap Hairston) There are days when you turn in your column, I have no (bleep) idea what it's about.

HANKS: (as Mike McAlary) You tell people you write my column.

GERETY: (as Hap Hairston) Some days I do. (Bleep)

HANKS: (as Mike McAlary) I write my column. Some days you fix my column, and I am so grateful to you, Mr. Hairston. But news flash, but that is your job.

LUNDEN: The play follows McAlary through the ups and downs of his life and career. His rise to become the best paid columnist in the New York tabloids, his near fatal car crash caused by his own drunk driving, his reporting missteps and his rehabilitation. His last major story, about a horrible episode of police abuse in 1997, earned McAlary the Pulitzer Prize, but he died of colon cancer just months later.

Tom Hanks says there's a kind of poignancy, 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.

HANKS: Well, selfishly, I did this to hang out with Nora. The original part of this was, well, how bad can that be? 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.

LUNDEN: One of Nora Ephron's sons, Jacob Bernstein, who's a journalist himself, says he's very proud of her work on "Lucky Guy." But tonight's opening will be bittersweet.

JACOB BERNSTEIN: I miss my mother and that supersedes a play that she would've written or a movie that she would've directed, all of that stuff. But we have a premiere on Monday night and it will be exciting and it will be sad.

LUNDEN: "Lucky Guy" opens for a limited run at the Broadhurst Theatre tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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