A stage version of the movie “Key Largo,” John Huston’s 1948 classic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson, is asking for trouble. To begin with, who can compete with the soul-weary charisma of Bogie and Bacall?
But the production of “Key Largo” that opened Thursday at the Geffen Playhouse, featuring a world premiere adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher and actor Andy Garcia, takes a different route to success. The staging by director Doug Hughes, making the most of John Lee Beatty’s Florida hideaway hotel set, keeps the atmosphere tense and roiling with dramatic interest.
The story of a GI who travels to meet the widow and father of a fallen comrade, only to discover that the Florida hotel they operate has been temporarily taken over by mobsters, has the kind of gun-toting plot that’s more familiar to the screen than to the stage. Hatcher and Garcia cut the cinematic finale on the high seas, but they preserve the screenplay’s dramatic drive. This “Key Largo” never stalls for a moment.
Garcia’s high voltage portrayal of mobster Johnny Rocco infuses the play with crackling vitality. Taking on the role that Robinson played with his imitable tough guy swagger, Garcia paints a gangster portrait more along the lines of those created over the years by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The entrance applause that Garcia is showered with, an embrace for an actor who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance in “The Godfather: Part III,” is more than earned by his commanding, stage-shaking turn. Mixing menace and flamboyant humor, sleaze and sophistication, he makes Rocco live anew.
Danny Pino brings a different kind of smoldering energy than Bogart did to the role of Frank McCloud, the World War II major who has traveled to this tropical locale to greet the father and wife of a soldier killed under his command. Pino’s eyes are less darkly hooded than Bogart’s. His Frank is similarly scarred by his experiences on the battlefield, but he doesn’t seem to be living a posthumous existence.
The problem with the character is genealogical. Frank McCloud derives from Maxwell Anderson’s play “Key Largo,” a poetic drama in which Frank is a deserter of the Spanish Civil War haunted by his own cowardice. Although Hatcher and Garcia’s adaption claims to be based on both Anderson’s original and the subsequent Warner Bros. film, their version hews more closely to the movie.
Frank’s character clearly has secrets, but what they are is never adequately elucidated. A vagueness lies at the heart of the story, but Pino fleshes out the part with a sympathetic presence. And the adaptation gives his struggle a political resonance in that his battle against evil forces in Key Largo is an extension of his combat against fascism in Europe. The drama sets out to entertain, but contemporary parallels lurk under the surface.
The greedy bad guys are the greedy bad guys regardless of the color of their passports, but can Frank sustain the fight? That’s where Nora (Rose McIver) comes in. McIver certainly doesn’t have Bacall’s larger-than-life glamour, and consequently her character doesn’t loom as large. But the feisty goodness of her Nora is all that’s needed to awaken Frank from his demoralized torpor. In piquing his romantic interest, she revives his moral sense. The love story is subordinate to the crime thriller, but it is still an essential part of the tale.
The supporting cast brings to the stage the vivid color of classic Hollywood. Joely Fisher invests Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s lush of a mistress, with a kind of louche nobility. Louis Mustillo and Stephen Borrello, part of Rocco’s gang, heighten the foreboding atmosphere with a thugishness that reveals how anxious they are to please the boss. Tony Plana gives Mr. D’Alcala, Nora’s father-in-law who’s now blind (as he was in Anderson’s play) instead of confined to wheelchair, a spirited resolve to stand up for what’s right despite his age and infirmity.
Visually, Hughes’ production is a marvel, demonstrating what designer ingenuity can accomplish. Beatty’s entrancing set is given metaphoric dimension by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, Alex Hawthorn’s sound, Arturo Sandoval’s musical contribution and Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson’s projections. The hurricane that hits Key Largo lashes the hotel with a spellbinding fury. The film, with all its technological advantages, seems less real than the stage production.
But Garcia is the secret weapon in his reworking of “Key Largo.” Whether wandering around in a red robe like a debauched emperor or making an exit in the white suite of a Southern swell (the costumes by Linda Cho are all on the money), he wears Rocco’s intimating demeanor like a second skin. More impressive still, Garcia makes us momentarily forget the illustrious precedent of the movie by keeping us completely absorbed in the machinations of this updated moral caper.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays.-Fridays., 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays., 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions). Extended to Dec. 15.
Tickets: $30-$160 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours (one intermission)