Tom Hanks Lucky Guy
Tom Hanks as the Daily News columnist Mike McAlary in Norah Ephron's "Lucky Guy." Joan Marcus

The American Theatre Wing straddled a difficult line with its 2013 Tony Award nominations, compiling a diverse list of hopefuls who should attract a sizable audience for the awards telecast without alienating hardcore theater loyalists.

Announced on Tuesday by Sutton Foster and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the list of nominations is largely absent of big-name Hollywood celebrities, with one notable exception: Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, one of the biggest movie stars of the last 20 years, was nominated for his role as the Daily News columnist Mike McAlary in Norah Ephron’s “Lucky Guy.”

But does Hanks deserve the honor, or is his inclusion merely a way for the Hollywood-averse Tonys to have their cake and eat it too? Critical appraisals of Hanks’ performance offer little by way of consensus. Many of the reviews have been, if not glowing, at least generous. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney wrote that Hanks’ “innate integrity ensures that we feel for Mike,” while Variety’s Marilyn Stasio noted that “the affable movie star takes to the stage like a fish to water.”

But some theater reviewers think assessments of Hanks’ work are being clouded by the actor’s “nicest guy in Hollywood” lure -- a preset wisdom perpetuating the belief that he can do no wrong.

“There’s a likability factor that permeates everything Tom Hanks does,” said Doug Strassler, a theater critic for the New York Press. “For that reason, I think the reviews have been kinder to him than they would have been if it were somebody else.”

Either way, the Wing has guaranteed that no shortage of buzz will surround the Tonys this year. At the same time, the nominators took pains not to recognize stage performances by Alec Baldwin, Sigourney Weaver, Scarlett Johansson and other big names -- thereby deflecting charges that the biggest honor in New York theater has become far too dependent on Hollywood muscle.

It’s a far cry from 2010, when Johansson, Denzel Washington, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kelsey Grammar and Christopher Walken were among the nominees. Four Hollywood stars won Tonys that year, sparking a backlash by some in the theater community who complained of blatant A-list pandering.

Hanks’ likability quotient is bound to keep similar complaints to a minimum this year, but Strassler doesn’t necessarily think it should. He said Hanks’ turn as McAlary was not a particularly bad one, but his nomination came at the expense of far more deserving performances, such as Alan Cumming, who intrepidly tackled every role in “Macbeth” at the Barrymore Theater.

“The degree of difficulty there was so much higher than what Hanks did,” Strassler said.

Complicating matters, meanwhile, is Ephron’s play, her final work before succumbing to cancer last year. Ephron died while she was still working on it, and many critics thought that unfinished aspect showed when “Lucky Guy” opened to the press this month. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called it “not so much a fully developed play or even a persuasive character study as a boisterous swapping of fond anecdotes.” As such, he wrote that Hanks was not given room to be more than an “animated illustration” for tales about McAlary.

Strassler agrees. He said “Lucky Guy,” which is nominated for Best Play, came with a weak blueprint that held Hanks back. “It was lesser material and therefore a lesser performance,” he said. “It was the most shapeless of all the shows that are nominated.”

Shapeless or no, Strassler said there was always the sense in the theater community that nominations for both Hanks and Ephron were locked from the moment the show's Broadway run was announced. It’s a foregone conclusion that you don’t break up such a prolific pair of collaborators for their final project. But whether that wisdom will translate into a Tony medallion is still anyone’s guess.

“I don’t know if ‘Lucky Guy’ will take it, but Hanks is by far in the lead,” Strassler said. “For the record, I’m predicting he’ll win.”

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