NEW YORK — Columnist Mike McAlary was due to get chemotherapy treatment in August 1997 when he got a hot tip that a Haitian immigrant had been sodomized and beaten by white police officers at a station house.
What happened next has become legend. McAlary, the city's dominant tabloid reporter, blew off his own life-saving treatment to get the first interview with Abner Louima. McAlary would win the Pulitzer Prize the next year but would die of cancer a few months later at age 41.
McAlary's fateful decision to chase the story is the subject of "The Wood," an off-Broadway play by former public relations guru Dan Klores that opened Thursday at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in the West Village.
At times uneven and clumsy, the play is billed as "a heartfelt no-holds barred look" at McAlary and his final days, but fails to illuminate the inner workings of a driven and talented reporter. It begins to ask tough questions about what motivated him but then inexplicably shies away, leaving the distinct aroma of hagiography.
An eight-person cast does well on the small stage, especially John Viscardi as the hard-drinking, mustached reporter, Vladimir Versailles as Louima and David Deblinger as McAlary's friend Tommy. The female characters — Melanie Charles as Louima's wife and Kim Director as McAlary's spouse — have little to do but quietly worry and love unconditionally.
Klores, who was McAlary's pal, has chosen to spotlight the McAlary-Louima connection, which means director David Bar Katz cleverly, and often, employs a hospital bed on stage — where Louima recovers after the assault and where McAlary receives his chemo. One has endured near death; the other is moving toward it.
But the playwright curiously has Louima pop up throughout the play, sometimes to help the narrative and sometimes to just stand on the edge of the stage and bear witness. He even shows up long before he is officially introduced, as if the playwright were trying to argue these two men were fated to cross paths. Sometimes Louima seems hostile, sometimes sneering, but if he feels the media has exploited him, that is never discussed.
In some ways, there is so much Louima that the play's purported focus on McAlary gets sidetracked. It also makes the victim of one of the city's most brutal attacks a supporting player in his own story. In addition, the inside-baseball nature of the script — filled with freewheeling references to the city's tabloid past and some McAlary tidbits — may also confuse audience-members not in the business.
Viscardi plays the reporter with swagger and charm, a Brooklyn blue-collar bloodhound with his shirtsleeves rolled-up who lives for one thing only: "The Wood," slang for the newspaper's front-page headline. Oh, and the truth. And to protect. And to make people safe. All those motives are used without question.
It is left to Tommy to really press McAlary on his methods, which produce some of the play's best electricity. Tommy thinks his friend might be exploitative and use fuzzy morals. "You step on people," he tells McAlary. "What's the difference between a lie, a seduction, a feint, a setup? Huh? What?"
Just then, just when it's starting to get uncomfortable and good, Klores pulls back, as if frightened of what he might find. In the end, McAlary's long death contains few regrets ("I never gave you enough," he tells his stoic wife) and he dies a hero's death, cheered and vindicated. The play, running until Oct. 9, missed an opportunity to say something larger about journalism and the city.