“There I found myself, having been led into a dark, cold room. There were strangers everywhere who only eyed you up and down to judge you but wouldn’t dare to say a word. I was trapped with two intimidating men on either side of me. There was no option of escape. I had no clue what I had gotten myself into, or what was going to happen, much less what I was going to say to my friends and family after it was all over; that is if it would ever be over . . . .” That’s how I felt during the first 15 minutes of this play.
Billy Hayes was caught on October 7, 1970, smuggling four pounds of Turkish pot out of Turkey. He was sentenced to four years and two months. It was later converted to a life sentence. After five years in a Turkish prison, Billy escaped and fled to Greece. Hayes wrote a book about his liberation from what he considered to be unjust punishment, which was later made into a movie written by Oliver Stone and starring Brad Davis, which now is a one-man play written and performed by Hayes.
As I walked into the theatre, there was a screen on the back wall with a picturesque backdrop. There was blatant mood-setting music, a singular stool and one bottle of Poland Springs water on the floor next to it. It looked like the unveiling of the iPhone 7 rather than a play. That is exactly how it seemed. The play took off like a motivational speech, with direct address to the audience and very little experiencing what was happening in the story-telling. There wasn’t a shadow of acting, but in hindsight, this may have been a good thing.
The true star of the show wasn’t the questionable direction by Jeffrey Altshuler, nor the nonexistent set. It wasn’t the heavy-handed lighting design by Stephen Arnold, guiding the audience through the moods of the story, nor was the star the man who performed it. The star was his incredible story.
This emotional and inspiring tale of the man telling you the story kept me on the metaphorical edge of my seat. It wasn’t the way he was delivering it, but simply the events he was telling the audience. It was seventy minutes of an amazing text being delivered to a very engaged audience. There were beautiful moments when Hayes would truly experience and re-live the events as he was narrating them, and this is what kept me attached, wanting more. He ran past many moments at a blazing speed making me wish he could slow down and let the audience live his story with him.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a hard time calling this a play. It rode a line closer to the mark of motivational speech rather than a dramatic theatrical piece, but it was possibly one of the greater motivational speeches I’ve ever heard. His story is worth an audience, not necessarily his performance.
At the end of the play he has a twenty-minute talk back with his audience. This was easily the most theatrical moment of the evening. Watching him truthfully respond to the questions the audience had and taking the time to consider his response in relation to this story we had just heard was a great way to end the evening. In these twenty minutes, his story and personality shine without distracting lights and fake direction, and it left the audience feeling as if they had also “ridden the midnight express” and escaped with him.
In short, go if you love stories; save your money if you love story-telling.
Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes By Billy Hayes; directed by Jeffrey Altshuler
Lighting by Stephen Arnold and Sarnoldesign; Graphic Design by Muse Design LTD. and Alan Buttar; production stage manager, Josh Kohler; Press Representatives, Springer & Associates, Gary Springer and Joe Trentacosta; Marketing and Advertising, DTE Agency, Amanda Bohan, Karen Rusch, Nikki Arnon; general manager, Barrow Street Theatre, Scott Morfee, Amy Dalba; company manager, Victoria Gagliano. Presented by Barbara Ligeti & Jeffrey Altshuler in association with Jan Cobler, Jonathan Chang, Wendy West. At the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Streer, Manhattan, 212-243-6262, smartix.com. Through Nov. 30. Running time: 70min.
WITH: Billy Hayes.