'Key Largo': Theater Review

Key Largo - Andy Garcia -Production Still  2- H 2019
Jeff Lorch
Forget Bogie and Bacall, here's Rocco!

This world premiere based on the classic Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall film and earlier Maxwell Anderson play opens with the spotlight squarely on producer, co-writer and star Andy Garcia, appearing opposite Joely Fisher.

First produced in 1939, Maxwell Anderson's Key Largo is a play written in blank verse that starred Paul Muni as a soldier who abandons his comrades during the Spanish Civil War, but later gets a chance to redeem himself stateside. If you don’t remember that part from the classic 1948 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, that’s because it’s not there. Director John Huston had the script entirely overhauled before he put it before the cameras. And now, co-authors Andy Garcia and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher have reimagined it again as a vehicle for the star, who also produced the new iteration.

The new creative team, which includes Tony-winning director Doug Hughes, shifts the focus from McCloud — played by Bogart in the movie and TV actor Danny Pino here — to outlaw Johnny Rocco, with Garcia stepping into the shoes of screen predecessor Edward G. Robinson, his bluster only slightly outdone by veteran scenic designer John Lee Beatty's raging hurricane.

In the aftermath of World War II, Frank McCloud shows up with a heavy heart at the rundown Key Largo Hotel, a splendid split octagonal design by Beatty that serves as the play’s single set. Nora D'Alcala (Rose McIver), the widow of McCloud's battlefield friend, lives with her blind father-in-law (Tony Plana). Nora and McCloud talk of mudflats, crabs and bonefish, and the narrative sputters as we await the arrival of a hurricane to juice the theatrics. With a bolt of thunder, Garcia's Johnny Rocco appears at the top of the stairs, cocooned in a red satin dressing gown, the only vibrant hue in an otherwise dingy palette. 

Rocco was arrested and deported but has snuck back into the country to pull off a drug deal with the criminal who has taken over his racket, Ziggy, played by Bradley Snedeker, one of the play’s other bright spots. Naively believing a storm is just a storm, he insists Ziggy drive down from Miami to finalize their transaction that night. As the hurricane closes in, it's plain to see Rocco is terrified of thunder. When electricity cuts out, his paranoia deepens while he and his goons, Curly and Toots, hold McCloud, Nora and Mr. D'Alcala at gunpoint. 

For most fans, the reason to see Key Largo is Garcia, who is the play's spark in the beginning and fire in the end. Creepily cavorting, he exudes what Rocco would call charm and the rest of us would call anything but. "Any man he couldn't corrupt, he terrified, and he murdered the rest," is how moll Gaye Dawn (Joely Fisher) describes him. Rocco is the engine that drives this adaptation of the play; without him it would wither like a leaky balloon. And while he is the play’s life-giver, he is also the taker, leaving little room for dramatic possibilities between McCloud and Nora, the heart of the material. 

An Oscar nominee for The Godfather III, Garcia has maintained a long and varied career in TV and film since his breakthrough opposite Kevin Costner in 1987’s The Untouchables. Characterized by brooding roles on the wrong side of the law, or at least on the wrong side of joy, Garcia plays to type here, channeling a touch of Tony Montana at the end of Scarface, or even Cagney at the end of White Heat

Another reason to see the play is Fisher, best known for her television work. Here she plays the role that won Claire Trevor a best supporting actress Oscar — a boozy gangster's moll who "if she isn't drunk and crying, she's hungover and arguing." Like the rest of the supporting cast, her character is limited to type, but Fisher provides sorely needed comic relief laced with pathos. Craving a drink, she is bullied by Rocco into singing for the ensemble, which Fisher does splendidly, registering the faded glory of the onetime lounge singer turned sot in a few simple bars. 

While Garcia and playwright Hatcher (who scripted the current Bill Condon movie The Good Liar) expediently tie in a subplot involving escaped convicts and a murdered road boss, they end up sacrificing emotion and dynamism among the characters. While Bogie and Bacall are a tough act to follow, what the text affords Pino and McIver is a few brief connections and a near kiss that lacks the emotional foundation required to give it dramatic heft. A former soldier finding sexual chemistry with his fallen comrade's widow amid life and death circumstances is the type of forbidden passion that affords simmering subtext and taboo temptations. But those go unexplored here. 

Rounding out the cast are henchmen Curly, a comically gripey Louis Mustillo, and Toots, his tightly wound junior played by Stephen Borrello. Plana is convincing as the calm and reflective blindman, and Richard Riehle presents a Wilford Brimley-like local sheriff in his brief appearances. 

Director Hughes (Doubt) delivers uneven work from the show's opening scenes, when McCloud meets Nora and Mr. D'Alcala. The three actors stand rooted to their marks delivering lines as audience anticipation deflates. During ensemble scenes where all are present, which is most of the time, secondary castmembers, given nothing to play, stand around and watch whoever is speaking. Like the material, Hughes seems mainly concerned with modulating and shaping Garcia's performance, which he does effectively, escalating Rocco's desperation to the point of helplessness and a justified demise that suggests Garcia might put the scenery on the menu. That would be a shame since it's one of this production's most compelling achievements. 

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Stephen Borrello, Joely Fisher, Andy Garcia, Rose McIver, Louis Mustillo, Danny Pino, Tony Plana, Richard Riehle, Bradley Snedeker
Director: Doug Hughes
Playwright: Jeffrey Hatcher and Andy Garcia, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson and the Warner Bros. film
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Alex Hawthorne
Music: Arturo Sandoval
Projection designer: Kaitlyn Pietras, Jason H. Thompson
Presented by Geffen Playhouse, Warner Brothers Theatre Ventures, in association with Frank Mancuso, Andy Garcia