By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 22, 2019 at 03:34 PM EST
Jeff Lorch/Courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse

Key Largo, adapted from the 1948 Floridian film noir of the same name, is currently making a splashy world premiere at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse.

It’s a straightforward tale of veteran Frank McCloud (Danny Pino), who comes to visit the widow, Nora (Rose McIver) and father, Mr. D’Alcala (Tony Plana) of one of his former soldiers. He arrives at their hotel in Key Largo to discover it’s been overrun by gangsters, chiefly Johnny Rocco (Andy Garcia), a deported mob boss trying to get his claws back into American soil. As a hurricane approaches, tempers flare and an emotional storm rivaling the one outside threatens to wreak havoc on their lives.

The original film is packed with Hollywood heavies, one of four immortal onscreen pairings between legendary Hollywood lovers Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It also features Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco, a return to the gangster roles that made him famous, as well as venerable Lionel Barrymore in a more kindly role than It’s a Wonderful Life fans might be accustomed to. Claire Trevor gives an Oscar-winning turn as blousy, eternally soused, faded nightclub singer Gaye Dawn. All that is to say, it leaves some big shoes to fill.

Yet, the talent behind this production is also nothing to sniff at – Andy Garcia anchors the proceedings as Johnny Rocco, and he also co-adapted the script alongside playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. Joely Fisher steps into the Claire Trevor role. And the rest of the cast is rounded out with faces familiar to television audiences, including Mayans M.C.’s Danny Pino and Tony Plana and iZombie’s Rose McIver.

Garcia is the heart of the production, all the intrigue and danger swirling around his menacing Johnny Rocco. He chews his way through the scenery with malevolent glee, his unhinged gangster at turns seductive, charming, and unblinkingly cruel. Garcia masters the undercurrent of danger always present with Rocco, his sense of two-bit entitlement offset by the fear that he could explode at any moment. Only Garcia could make such a delicious meal of having the audacity to shoot at a thunderstorm. Even before he enters, the stage pulses with his absence, whispers of his presence flitting through the action as the audience eagerly awaits his arrival.

If nothing else, Key Largo is a centerpiece for him, an opportunity for the venerated film star to sink his teeth into a role that is theatrical with a capital “T.” Once famous for cruel master manipulators in films like The Godfather Part III and the Ocean’s trilogy, Garcia’s image has softened in recent years as a go-to romantic figure in films like Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and Book Smart. Johnny Rocco allows him the space to dive back into the glimmering delights of that early ruthlessness, while also showcasing his undeniable charm. He’s mesmerizing, the only person you want to watch every moment he’s onstage.

Jeff Lorch/Courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse

The Geffen spares no expense in design either. Linda Cho’s vibrant period costumes that make you feel like you’ve walked onto the Warner Bros. lot in the 1940s. As the centerpiece of the action, Garcia has three costume changes, an apt metaphor for his volatile, ever-changing nature (and need to showcase his wealth) amidst the other characters who stay in the same clothes throughout.

John Lee Beatty’s set is a character unto itself. It’s a rich rendering of a Floridian hotel lobby, bursting with period detail so vivid you can practically smell the noirish clouds of cigarette smoke from the moment you clap eyes on it. With ample assistance from Alex Hawthorn and Peter Kaczorowski’s sound and lighting design, it brings the hurricane to life with provocative realism, without ever overshadowing the emotional storm raging inside the hotel.

There’s a lot of reasons to adapt Key Largo now, over 70 years after it hit movie screens. It’s clearly a passion project for Garcia, and he’s crafted a superb vehicle for himself. Rocco is a perfect villain for our era, a powerful man who believes that whoever has the most money and the most guns will always win out. He’s a bully, who has blustered his way to the top, letting his henchman and his gun do most of the talking (even if he can’t resist running his mouth about his own puffed-up greatness). This adaptation leans heavily into modern-day parallels, crafting a parable of the small against the mighty and a sense of helplessness in the face of craven greed and power.

But perhaps we just shouldn’t ever touch anything with Bogie and Bacall’s fingerprints on it. McIver and Pino can’t ever hope to match the electric chemistry and on-screen magnetism of that duo, through no fault of their own. It’s an impossible task.

Frank McCloud is a cynical veteran, a classic Bogart character who lives by own moral code that may be self-serving and pessimistic but always veers toward justice. Pino is appropriately laconic in the role, taking everything in through hungry eyes – but he can’t approach the world-weariness that Bogart made into an art. McIver is appealing as the quietly feisty Nora, but in her hands the character is more run-of-the-mill ingenue than sultry and intriguing, hallmarks of a Bacall role.

In general, the female roles are underwritten here. Joely Fisher is affecting as the disintegrating Gaye Dawn, but the script denies her the same level of heartbreaking fragility that propelled Claire Trevor to an Oscar. Both Nora and Gaye feel like footnotes in Johnny Rocco’s story in this adaptation, their own desires and fears reduced to background noise (it’s odd to say that a 1948 film script offers more meaty material for women than a 2019 adaptation, but here we are).

Key Largo is in so many ways a product of its time, a noir tale of a hubris-filled, deranged gangster who meets his match in a ragtag crew of world-weary individuals. There are startling parallels to our present moment, predominantly in its portrait of the types of men who will cling to power with craven desperation and a bully’s disposition. But the outsized circumstances of its noir roots mean it can feel a bit dated in its soapy approach to the peril it presents.

Garcia is superb and clearly having the time of his life, an almost impish twinkle in his eye as he luxuriates in every moment granted him. Key Largo is heaps of fun if you’re willing to go along for the ride, but perhaps slightly more silly than audiences might expect (or creators intend). B

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