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Key Largo Is Full of Sound but Lacks Fury

An adaptation of the famous Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film comes to the Geffen.

Rose McIver, Louis Mustillo, Andy Garcia, and Stephen Borrello in Key Largo, directed by Doug Hughes, at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Jeff Lorch)

Batten down the hatches— a hurricane has come to the Geffen. Key Largo, the new adaptation of the 1948 John Huston film, creates thunder and lightning with visual effects that turn the theater into ground zero of a devastating storm. The technical team brilliantly crafts a mood of claustrophobia and despair.

Post-World War II, a war hero, Frank McCloud (Danny Pino), visits a Florida Keys hotel run by the blind Mr. D'Alcala (Tony Plana) and his daughter-in-law, Nora (Rose McIver), while a massive storm approaches. The hotel owner's late son had been stationed under Frank, and Frank has been traveling the country to tell the families the details of their deaths. Though the hotel is closed for the season, a mysterious visitor (Andy Garcia) and his armed "friends" have taken refuge. The obviously aliased Mr. Brown and his men are waiting for a colleague, and their mission puts the old man and his daughter-in-law in danger. Frank may be their only salvation. However, despite the multiple war medals, Frank does not consider himself courageous. He harbors his own dark secrets about the war.

Jeffrey Hatcher and Garcia have adapted the screenplay by Huston and Richard Brooks as opposed to the original 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson. The new adaptation slims down the cast and alters Frank's character somewhat but, for the most part, follows the story Huston and Brooks laid out.

Though director Doug Hughes constructs a visually harrowing setting, his staging and the actors' performances lack the suspense that made the film a classic. Garcia lacks the menace of the story's central villain. From the beginning, he appears weak and pompous, and never commands the stage. He does incorporate an interesting bit of stage business with a handkerchief — waving it, dousing his face, treating it like a security blanket. Unfortunately, that handkerchief outdoes the rest of his performance.

Joely Fisher and Danny Pino in a scene from Key Largo.
(© Jeff Lorch)

The two romantic leads, Pino and McIver, also lack spark. Plana is compassionate as the hotel proprietor, and Stephen Borrello and Louis Mustillo are appropriately weaselly as the henchmen. The play comes alive whenever Joely Fisher is onstage. Playing Gaye Dawn, the lush saloon singer past her prime, Fisher is electric, dropping her voice to a raspy stammer, rubbing her tongue against the inside of her cheek when she is cornered, and blowing smoke in the air as if she's a sultry chanteuse. In one powerful scene, Fisher is shattering when she is forced to sing for another drink.

John Lee Beatty's set, ornate with accurate minute details, sets a tone of dread. Palm trees brush against the window as the rain splatters on the glass roof to give off the sense of being trapped. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting scheme includes shadows of blowing trees on the roof that match beautifully with sound designer Alex Hawthorn's effects of rain and blustering wind. Linda Cho's costumes treat Garcia's character like a dandy, dressing him in a vivid red silk robe at one point, and in an all-white linen suit later, which fits with the character's delusions of grandeur. Composer Arturo Sandoval's striking score appears influenced by Jerry Goldsmith's themes for Chinatown, which was a pastiche of '40s noir scores by Miklós Rósza, Bernard Hermann, and others.

Key Largo superbly transports the audience to the precarious setting so they feel in the center of the storm. Sadly, the performances will not wipe away memories of the classic film. Where the movie wrapped its celluloid around audiences' necks and pulled tight, this production leaks its tension into the rain-soaked streets.

Key Largo runs through December 10 at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Jeff Lorch)
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