Would “Casablanca” make a good play? Guess what: It was first produced on stage as “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” How about “Key Largo,” the black-and-white Bogie-and-Bacall vehicle in which a handful of misfits find themselves trapped in a South Florida hotel while a hurricane rages outside? In fact, the 1948 John Huston film was adapted from a Broadway show, which makes sense when you consider that the drama takes place almost entirely in a single location (not counting the climactic shootout aboard a boat bound for Cuba).
When actor Andy Garcia hatched the idea of transferring the film noir-era crime film back to the stage, he wasn’t especially interested in circling back to Maxwell Anderson’s original 1939 script. Rather, he had his eye on the role Edward G. Robinson had played in the movie, the part of Johnny Rocco, the tough-guy gangster who rents out the Largo Hotel for a week during the off-season with the intention of doing a massive drug deal that should set him up for retirement. Garcia pitched the idea to Los Angeles’ Geffen Theatre, co-writing (with Jeffrey Hatcher, who did a similar update to “Wait Until Dark”) a colorful yet classy version that’s faithful to the film, while shifting the gravity ever so slightly from Humphrey Bogart’s role, the nothing-to-lose Army veteran who blows in just before the storm, to Rocco — and to a lesser degree, to Rocco’s gal, a torched-out lounge singer named Gaye Dawn (Joely Fisher, relishing the chance to play the lush).
It’s a smart call, considering that Bogart leaves impossibly big shoes for any actor to fill, whereas Robinson, while a screen legend in his own right, doesn’t necessarily dictate how Rocco should be played on stage. Plus, Rocco doesn’t enter until at least a quarter-hour into the play, though his presence is felt from the opening scene, which makes for a terrific entrance when he finally descends the stairs. His henchmen, Curly (Louis Mustillo) and Toots (Stephen Borrello), have been hanging around nervously in the hotel lobby, intimidating the blind owner (Tony Plana, a standout) and his defiant daughter (Rose McIver) until Frank McCloud arrives.
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A regular on such series as “Cold Case” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Danny Pino is no Bogart, though he’s got the square jaw and broad shoulders to convey the qualities that got him through his military service, leaving him fearless in the face of nearly any bully. “We fought the war to get rid of the Roccos,” he quips at one point. Frank has come to deliver the bad news about a good soldier unlucky in battle, after which, we sense, he most likely plans to take his own life. He’s a stoic, nihilistic soul who’s wandered into what feels like a cross between a Tennessee Williams hothouse — with its tropical plants, ceiling fans, and stark-shadow lighting — and a Sartrean sort of purgatory. His conscience may be wounded by his own sense of cowardice during wartime, but the next few hours should give Frank a chance to redeem himself.
And so the scene is set for Rocco to descend, gun drawn, into the room. Top of the food chain, he controls the people assembled there, but the weather is another matter. Behind the windows, water pours and palm leaves sway, casting dramatic shadows in the distance. A storm is coming, and scenic designer John Lee Beatty has rigged the set to blow apart once it hits at the top of the somewhat sluggish first act. After intermission, things pick up, as the buyer for Rocco’s drugs shows up (Bradley Snedeker has a deep voice and no-nonsense air that might have been better suited to Pino’s part). Weapons are drawn, the sheriff reappears, and power games ensue, including an excuse for Fisher to perform a broke-down tragic rendition of one of her old love songs. (Speaking of music, Arturo Sandoval’s score subtly amplifies the play’s sense of menace.)
Hatcher and Garcia have figured out a way to bring the climactic gunplay into the hotel lobby, making the audience jump each time a pistol is fired. “Key Largo” doesn’t have a great deal to say about the world, beyond Rocco’s cynical philosophy that “the one with the most guns and the most money wins.” Though most of the characters would have been right at home in a 1940s film noir, it’s telling how much the iconography of the Mafia has changed since “The Godfather,” to the extent that Garcia seems to be channeling a middle-aged Al Pacino more than the grizzled gangsters of classic black-and-white movies. He’s not Tony Montana over-the-top, by any means, but Pacino must have inspired his interpretation of Rocco, who alternates between a kind of cold-blooded charm and burning anger. Without a doubt, Garcia’s the reason to see this show, but will he reprise the role if anyone else chooses to produce it?