Theater Review: Key Largo at the Geffen Playhouse

Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch

Key Largo was first a 1939 Broadway play, then a 1948 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and finally, it is now at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in a new world premiere adaptation. Adapted by Andy Garcia and Jeffrey Hatcher, this play shifts some of the focus to the character of Johnny Rocco (played by Garcia), a notorious gangster who takes the inhabitants of a Florida Keys hotel hostage during a hurricane.

Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch

Directed by Doug Hughes, all of the action takes place in the lobby of the Key Largo hotel in 1946. Frank McCloud (Danny Pino), a recently discharged army veteran, is on a condolences tour, visiting the loved ones of his fellow soldiers who died in battle. He comes to town to see Nora (Rose McIver), the young widow of one of his comrades, and her father-in-law, Mr. D’Alcala (Tony Plana), the owner of the hotel. There are only a few other guests—Toots (Stephen Borrello), Curly (Louis Mustillo), Gaye (Joely Fisher), and, of course, Johnny Rocco. Soon, the mobsters, who are wanted for murder and in the middle of a risky deal, have taken over the hotel, and it is up to McCloud to put his heroic tendencies to good use to save himself and the other civilians.

Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch

This production is visually gorgeous, unfolding on an ornate and adaptable set (John Lee Beatty). The lighting (Peter Kaczorowski) and sound design (Alex Hawthorn) work together to set the mood as the hurricane threatens to overtake the hotel. The entire aesthetic is perfectly reminiscent of the old-Hollywood noir style of the film. It is a very cinematic play, but the tension and suspense do not always translate to the theater setting. There is just something missing—perhaps it is a lack of clear stakes, or the fact that dubiously convincing fight choreography (Steve Rankin) does little to add menace to the gangsters’ actions. The danger never feels as palpable as it should, and with a couple exceptions, the story lacks an emotional throughline.

Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch

In the film, McCloud is the central role, but he feels quite absent in this version, which has been recalibrated to feature Johnny Rocco much more heavily.  There are vague mentions of the young soldier perhaps having secrets surrounding his reason for being discharged, and a couple moments of sexual tension between him and Nora that never pay off in any satisfying way. For being set up as the protagonist, the character is very underserviced in this adaptation. As a result, when it comes time for the final confrontation, everything feels a bit lackluster. And as for Johnny, his character is simply not that interesting. It’s a type we’ve seen many times before in media, and while Garcia is giving a charismatic, energetic performance, it all feels very surface level.

Photo Credit: Jeff Lorch

The character who shines brightest in this version is actually Gaye. Her character is rather heartbreaking—once adored by Johnny, she has now mostly been cast aside, frequently turning to alcohol to numb her pain. In the most memorable scene in the play, thanks to Fisher’s poignant performance, Johnny forces her to sing for the group and then immediately tears her down. It’s a humiliating moment symbolic of what her life has become, and it is devastating to watch. Overall, this substance of this production never quite manages to live up to its high-quality packaging. Perhaps gangster stories are just better off on the big screen.

Key Largo runs at the Geffen Playhouse through December 10th. The running time is 2 hours, including one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.


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