The Geffen Playhouse reboots a 1948 black-and-white movie classic live in living color in Jeffrey Hatcher and Andy Garcia’s rip-roaring World Premiere stage adaptation of the Bogie-&-Bacall suspense thriller Key Largo, directed with abundant flair by Tony winner Doug Hughes.

Golden Age of Hollywood buffs will recall the setup.

Returning WWII army vet Frank McCloud (Danny Pino) shows up at a Key Largo, Florida hotel on a mission: to visit the family of a fellow G.I. killed in battle on Italian soil while under his command.

The soldier’s hotel proprietor father (Tony Plana as Mr. D’Alcala) and his widow Nora (Rose McIver) quickly inform Frank that the entire hotel has been rented out to a group of travelers on the island for week’s worth of fishing: dressed-to-kill Toots (Stephen Borrello), loutish Curly (Louis Mustillo), curvaceous if past-her-prime Gaye Dawn (Joely Fisher), and a gentleman not yet descended from his upstairs room.

Frank’s suspicions that not all is right in the Largo Hotel are only solidified when Howard Brown (Andy Garcia) finally makes an appearance, and confirmed when Brown’s true identity is revealed.

Those who haven’t seen Edward G. Robinson as “Howard” in the John Huston-directed film noir may wish to skip the following spoiler–that the man identifying himself as Mr. Brown is in fact notorious gangster (and one-time Prohibition kingpin) Johnny Rocco, and that fishing is the last thing on his mind.

Though Hatcher and Garcia have based their stage adaptation on “the play by Maxwell Anderson and the Warner Bros. film,” a bit of research suggests that it’s almost entirely the latter that their script adheres to, though far from the letter.

Among the adapters savvy tweaks are changing Nora’s father-in-law from a wheelchair-bound Anglo to a blind Cuban immigrant, altering the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death in a way that would have been inconceivable in patriotic post-WWII Hollywood, and giving the widow D’Alcala a less than lily-white back story.

And since it would be nigh-on impossible to recreate the movie’s open-seas climax on stage, Hatcher and Garcia have come up with a clever way to relocate it inside the hotel, aided and abetted by fight choreographer Steve Rankin.

Die-hard Key Largo fans may get their knickers in a twist over these and other changes made to the movie, but for those open to alterations, it’s at the very least interesting to see Pino turn Frank into the classically handsome leading man Bogie was not, McIver make Nora the sunny blonde-next-door that Bacall was not, and Garcia turn Robinson’s Little Caesar-style Johnny (“See? See?”) into an Italian-American goodfellow to do Martin Scorsese proud.

As for the hurricane (inexplicably pronounced “hurrakin” by the entire cast of characters as if they were Brits) about to hit Key Largo, even those who might cavil over Hatcher and Garcia’s tweaks will find nothing to complain about when the storm hits shore thanks to the combined efforts of two-time Tony-winning scenic designer John Lee Beatty, lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, sound designer Alex Hawthorn, and some how-do-they-do-that magic.

Garcia commands the Geffen stage from the moment he comes down those stairs, with top-notch support from a terrific featured cast that also includes Richard Riehle’s Sheriff Gash and Bradley Snedeker’s Ziggy, with Plano earning special snaps for his Latino reinvention of Mr. D’Acala (formerly James Temple) and a simply sensational Fisher giving Gaye (a role that won Claire Trevor an Oscar) a contemporary authenticity and an a-cappella “Moanin’ Low” sung to stunning, heartbreaking effect.

Given what must almost certainly be the production’s Broadway aims (director Hughes and virtually all of its design team are New York-based), it’s no wonder Beatty’s colossal Hotel Largo set earns oohs and aahs from the get-go, with additional kudos due Linda Cho’s mid-1940s-perfect costumes, Arturo Sandoval’s suspense-building original music, and L.A.’s Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson’s bad-weather enhancing projections.

Ross Jackson is production stage manager and Michael Friedlander is assistant stage manager. Jeff Greenberg, CSA, is casting director.

With Andy Garcia’s above-the-title star billing pretty much guaranteeing sold-out houses throughout the run, Geffen Playhouse may well have the biggest holiday-season hit in town, and though it’s far from traditional “holiday entertainment,” as adrenaline chargers go, Key Largo can’t be beat.

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Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Through December 10. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. No performance on Thanksgiving. Reservations: 310 208-5454

–Steven Stanley
November 15, 2019
Photos: Jeff Lorch


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