KEY LARGO at Geffen Playhouse
It takes a large pair of ‘em to decide to take an iconic vintage film noir thriller, which onscreen featured a fullblown hurricane and climaxed on the high seas, and adapt it to the limitations of a stage—especially true when Richard Brooks and John Huston’s classic 1948 film was itself first lifted from what they considered a less successful play.
Developed and now facing its world premiere at the unstoppably hot Geffen Playhouse, let’s just say I hope costumer Linda Cho didn’t have to work around a “set” of epic proportions when designing for Andy Garcia as he prepared to co-write, co-produce, and star in this fresh new version of Maxwell Anderson’s all-but forgotten 1939 Broadway production of Key Largo.
Anderson’s original script was quite different from both Huston’s film and this new retelling adapted by Garcia and Jeffrey Hatcher, with the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie—itself perhaps most famous as the last smoldering screen pairing of Bogie and Bacall rather than for the plot—began as a morally and emotionally wounded deserter from the Spanish-American War played on Broadway by Paul Muni.
In Hatcher and Garcia’s Key Largo, Frank McCloud (played by Danny Pino) is now, as in Huston’s film, a recently discharged Army major returning from WWII. Still, as a character he continues to be tortured by his mysterious past while stationed overseas and is surely suffering from what would today be diagnosed as PTSD.
McCloud still arrives in the ramshackle hotel on the Straits of Florida run by the father and wife (Tony Plana and Rose McIver) of one of the men in his charge killed in action. It is his seventh and last such visit since returning to the States, a task he has taken upon himself with the hint that at the completion of his quest he might just decide to pull the plug on his own life.
He finds more than just the D’Alcalas alone in their secluded hotel shuttered for the season, quickly greeted the moment he steps into the lobby by a suspicious pair of rough gangster-type hoods (Stephen Borrello and Louis Mustillo) and a flirty, over-the-hill former nightclub singer (Joely Fisher) who’s laying into the scotch with a seemingly bottomless thirst.
Soon it’s apparent the group has not bought out the hotel for a fishing trip as they claim, instead revealing in their actions and reactions that they are all at the beck and call of an unseen and rather ominous guest, something made clear when a satin-robed dandy appears accompanied by a flash of lightning and loud clap of thunder on the landing of the hotel’s once grand staircase.
The obvious leader of the gang is Johnny Rocco (in a tour de force turn by Garcia), a notorious hood deported by the government back to Italy after years of ruling over an uncontrollable murderous mob dealing in drugs and prostitution.
Rocco has returned to Key West by way of Cuba to take back his throne, beginning with a transaction scheduled that night on this usually quiet and all-but deserted island at this time of year. He waits for the arrival of his former lacky Ziggy (Bradley Snedeker), who has commandeered his territory in his absence and is ready to deliver a satchel full of cash in return for a briefcase filled with the finest heroin to ever travel across the ocean to our shores.
This is purdy standard stuff, to be sure, but beyond the slim storyline is the haunted disenfranchisement of McCloud and how the spark of romance with Nora, the widow of his former subordinate who died while Frank ran off the other direction, changes his course and restores his willingness to fight for life again. This offers him a chance for possible redemption if he can stand up to the vicious and merciless Rocco.
The production, under the leadership of Tony-winning director Doug Hughes, is simply smashing. It is continuously tense, relentlessly engaging, and theatrically dazzling throughout. John Lee Beatty’s majestic two-story set is incredibly detailed and especially amazing when it comes crashing down in that dreaded hurricane at the center of the movie, here recreated with astoundingly real special effects.
Peter Kaczorowski’s jarring lighting plot, full of moody shadows and sudden bursts of nature’s fury, is perfectly accentuated by Alex Hawthorn’s crashing sound design, together conspiring to collectively at times launch the entire audience right out of their comfortably padded seats as they gasp aloud in surprise.
Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson’s projections are equally able to induce a kind of visual claustrophobia as they suggest the fierceness of the storm raging outside the hotel’s shaking windows, while Cho’s elegant and detailed costuming adds a milieu evoking the late 1940s from Gay Dawn’s seamed nylons to Johnny Rocco’s white Cubano-style fedora.
There are a few sections in the script which could still use a little fleshing out, but in general Hatcher and Garcia deserve commendation for how they have smoothly and cleverly transferred the culminating action away from the storm-swept fishing boat, bringing it back into the hotel lobby without jeopardizing any of the thrills and chills.
It did bother me that, although the pistols brandished and sometimes shot by Rocco and others are impressive props, in the hands of these actors they never seem to carry the actual weight such weapons would have. I did also wonder how the crashing glass of the hotel’s omnipresent skylight at the jaw-dropping end of the first act appeared to have been magically restored into place by the opening of Act Two.
Still, what makes this production, with all its impressive visual bells and whistles, succeed so splendidly is the cast. Expertly anchoring the entire production, Garcia is riveting, wonderfully slimy in an endearing way, and ultimately scary as hell.
As his obnoxiously grandiose Rocco brags in one passage that if someone like him—ruthless, corrupt, uneducated, and vain—can grab and steal and kill his way to become so important and successful, maybe one day he can become President of the United States. The savvy 2019 audience’s boisterous and vocal reaction even seemed to surprise Garcia, unless he was sharing a couple of seconds out of character on purpose to appreciate the moment with the rest of us.
Pino brings a new humanity to McCloud without smothering in the shadow of Bogart, as does McIver as his love interest. And although she doesn’t have the unearthly beauty and uniquely sultry baritone of Lauren Bacall, nor is her role written as quite the focal point as it is in the film, her Nora possesses a spirit and feistiness that makes up for it tenfold.
Although he still plays D’Alcala as blind, Plana loses the wheelchair and doesn’t ever resort to the familiar gruff and blustery delivery of Lionel Barrymore, giving him more of an opportunity to imbue the guy with a strength and resilience that enriches the character.
Borrello, Mustillo, and Snedeker are also quite successful avoiding the traps inherent in the actions of the quintessential noir-bred mobsters and Richard Riehle also does an impressive job making the rather unbelievable compromises expected the area’s marginally committed sheriff something audiences are somehow willing to accept.
As Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s dissipated and drunken moll rescued before his deportation from a chorusline with the promise of making her a star, Fisher is simply mesmerizing, even surpassing Claire Trevor in the role which won her a Best Supporting Oscar.
Fisher paints a vivid and heartbreaking portrait of a tragic but somehow endearing loser drowning in lost dreams and destined for a life of hard knocks—and when she is forced by Rocco to sing for those gathered waiting out the storm in return for the desperately-needed drink she has been denied, the result is showstopping, especially considering what a worldclass songstress Fisher really is.
Yup. It was quite a risk for Garcia and his co-producer, legendary film producer and former Paramount CEO Frank Mancuso, to reinvent a property as recognizable as Key Largo and even enlist renowned musical virtuoso Arturo Sandoval to compose a knockout original Afro-Cuban jazz score specifically for the production.
As exceptional and promising as this memorable theatrical reinvention is, it would surprise me if its evolution ended when it closes here Dec. 10. Credit for at least part of what this team has accomplished is that it was created under commission from the Geffen initiated by and with the blessing of Matt Shakman, who in his two-year reign as the complex’s artistic director has magically made the Geffen Playhouse a place to watch once again.
* * *