NY Theater Review: JK Clarke




Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes has re-opened for a limited run (through November 30) at the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village. The following is an updated review from this past February in its previous run.

Anyone who has seen the 1978 thriller Midnight Express (which was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two—both for its haunting soundtrack and for Oliver Stone’s terrific script), likely remembers the film vividly. It is a harrowing account of a young man (Billy Hayes) who is arrested in 1970 at the Istanbul, Turkey airport for smuggling several kilos of hashish. In the film, Hayes’ ordeal in a Turkish prison is the stuff of nightmares, but it is his violent escape that is most harrowing. However, what is most astonishing about the film is that it’s based on what actually happened to Billly Hayes. But, being Hollywood, a good many liberties were taken with Billy’s story. Some of which would make him a wanted man in Turkey again many years after his escape.

The overwhelming impact of the film would suggest that it’s not a story that needs to be retold. But, that’s just what’s happening in Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes. This time it’s the actual Billy Hayes telling the real story. And his narrative is equally gripping, though often quite different from Stone’s version.

Seeing Hayes seated on a stool, microphone in hand, looking fit, trim and smiling in a tight black t-shirt and appearing decades younger than his actual 66 years is a comforting reassurance that things ultimately turned out all right for him. There’s much less anticipated dread as he tells of his stupid plan to make money through smuggling, his capture, his imprisonment, and the bad luck of President Nixon’s decision to begin a global “war on drugs” that led to his five year imprisonment being converted into a life sentence. So much for double jeopardy.

One might ask why Hayes is still retelling this story 40 years hence. “It’s obviously something I need to do; it’s cathartic for me,” says a very self-aware Hayes. And it is for us, too, as he helps undo some of the prejudices we likely built up about Turkey and its judiciary system, based on the film’s portrayal. Hayes, by contrast, loves Turkey, particularly Istanbul, and has done his best to repair relations with the country, whose tourism dropped an astonishing 95% following the film’s release.

When Hayes describes aspects of the story that depart from the film—how he escaped, what prison he escaped from—as well as those that are accurately portrayed—his capture, prison life itself—the telling is vivid and captivating. He is articulate, well-spoken, and extremely thoughtful and self-aware. He attributes much of his survival both in and out of prison to his dedication to the yoga practice which he perfected while imprisoned. It shows.

Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes is the ultimate in storytelling. It’s an absolutely riveting account, told by a master storyteller. Billy is the kind of guy you want to meet at a party: he grabs your attention, tells you an amazing tale in the most captivating way possible, and when all is said and done, you want to hear his story all over again. You can now. It’s back, and playing at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes. Through November 30 at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street at Seventh Avenue). www.barrowstreettheatre.com