Monday, April 14, 2014

“Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes” - An Intense Journey

By Judd Hollander

They say truth is stranger than fiction. It certainly is in the case of Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, a one-man show written by and featuring Hayes, who recounts his own story of his time as a drug smuggler, being thrown into a Turkish prison, receiving a 30 year sentence, and his eventual escape to freedom. His story previously chronicled in the book "Midnight Express", which is prison slang for "escape", and the subsequent feature film. Since the outcome of what happened is known from the first moments of the play, if not before, what makes Hayes' story worth hearing is the actual journey he takes. One not only from place to place, but also of maturing and understanding; and thanks to Hayes' willingness to share his recollections, wart and all, it's a fascinating journey indeed.

Following the path many others took in the 1960s, Hayes turned on, tuned in and dropped out. Realizing the money to be had through drugs, he began making trips to Turkey, buying hashish there and bringing it back to the United States where he sold his ill-gotten gains at a huge profit. His first few trips through Turkish customs were relatively easy, taping bags of hashish to his body, hiding them in a plaster cast, etc. to avoid detection. However he found the entire process so easy that, by his own admission, he began to get careless and before his final trip didn't thoroughly check out the security procedures at the Turkish airport. As a result, he ended up being stopped just before he got on the plane where the drugs he was carrying were found by security guards, who were actually relieved that all Hayes had on him were drugs, rather than explosives of some kind. However that was enough to get Hayes sentenced to more than 4 years in jail, at least at first. The added time came later.

Hayes' narrative is divided into sections, he recounting them with alternatively a matter-of-fact air, a bit of wryness when he recalls - as he puts it - the "stupid" things he did to get him into this situation, as well a more serious and somber attitude as he brings to life the emotions he felt from the different events he experienced. Each of these moments being fascinating in their own way, Hayes having the ability to vividly recreate the scenes he's speaking of and bring those listening right into the story with him. The middle portion of the play giving a good idea to the uninformed, which one assumes would be most of the audience - this writer included - of what life was like in a Turkish prison at that time. This includes the camaraderie he felt, the friendships he formed, the enemies he made, and the survival instinct which kicked in that enabled him to withstand it all. Eventually, he is able to come to terms with what he's done and accept his punishment. That is until, due to various political circumstances, his time in jail is increased to 30 years. This in turn leads to a fascinating scene whereby Haynes recounts how he addressed the judge and his accusers just before his revised sentence was handed down.

From there the story takes on the aspects of a thriller as Hayes plots his escape from prison, and from the country itself. Hayes methodically laying out his orchestration and execution of these events, as well as the attitude of those he encounters while on the run. There's also more than a hint of amazement in Hayes' voice when he realizes just how lucky he was to make it to safety.

Hayes is a good narrator and has a congenial quality about him as he takes a story he's told hundreds of times before and fills it with feelings, descriptions and emphasis that makes it all completely fresh and absorbing. It's also the smaller details he talks about that add a more involving element to the entire tale. Such as the fact his additional sentence allowed him to select the prison where he would serve his time, so he could choose one which be advantageous to an escape; his taking a manual labor job at the prison to get himself in shape for his flight; as well as how the dangers of fighting in jail can get you in trouble with the authorities while at the same time building you a rep in prison. Also telling in Hayes' story is his own internal transformation from an irrepressible kid who thinks he's above the law to someone older and wiser who's willing to admits his mistakes. This in turn transforms the play into an intimate, personal and completely relatable journey. Hayes also tosses in a bit of rueful resignation when talking about the Hollywood process as he points out several pivotal moments in the "Midnight Express" film that never really happened. This includes one particular scene which got the Turkish government rather upset - and as Hayes notes, rightly so.

John Gould Rubin's direction is pretty much flawless, giving Hayes enough space to tell his story but never over-dramatizing, over-sentimentalizing or making the entire piece feel overlong in any way. The program notes also help detail Hayes' time in Turkey, along with the escape route he took. All of which help to fill in some important background information for the audience.
Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes is compelling from start to finish and a show one should definitely see. Especially as it offers a chance to hear a riveting story from the lips of the man whose story it is.

Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes
Written and performed by Billy Hayes
Presented by Barbara Ligeti, Jeffrey Altshuler and Edmund Gaynes
Co-Producers: Jonathan Chang, Jann Cobler, Exodus Broadway, Joseph Trent Siff
Press representative: Gary Springer, Springer Associates
Marketing & Advertising: Amanda Pekoe, The Pekoe Group
Set & Lighting Consultant: Josh Iacovelli
General Management: Form Theatricals (Anthony Francavilla and Zachary Laks)
Directed by John Gould Rubin

St. Luke's Theatre
308 West 46th Street
Running time: 85 minutes, including a Q&A with Mr. Hayes

Closed: March 23, 2014

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