Ordinarily, spending time in a Turkish prison on drug smuggling charges would not be considered a good career move. Ironically, for Billy Hayes, the famed protagonist of Midnight Express, the experience somehow evolved into a life-changing adventure that has seen him become an international best-selling author, the subject of an Oscar-winning movie and now the star of a one-man show, Riding the Midnight Express, that is opening off-Broadway tonight for a limited run at the St. Luke's Theatre. I was invited to view a preview performance and it is possible the final version show might be tweaked a bit but the basics will remain the same. Hayes was a cocky young product of the Flower Power generation who was enjoying a free-wheeling lifestyle of travel, pot smoking and casual sex. In 1969 he ended up in Turkey where he recognized that it was pretty easy to smuggle hashish out of the country into the USA. Hayes profited from the fruits of his crime, which he felt was a victimless endeavor. However, in 1970 he was eventually caught and sentenced to the hellish experience of an extended stay in Turkish jail. There he was terrorized by sadistic guards and had to battle to stay alive every day. Yet he behaved himself and served his sentence when, 54 days prior to his scheduled release, the court ruled that he should now serve a life sentence. Feeling betrayed, Hayes began planning a hair-raising escape that eventually succeeded, against all odds. He not only escaped the prison but had to elude his pursuers and eventually made his way out of Turkey on a rowboat. To say any more would ruin many of the more startling aspects of his story. Suffice it to say that his situation was equally perilous even after he arrived in Greece.
Hayes turned his incredible tale into the bestseller Midnight Express. The book was made into a smash hit film in 1978 by director Alan Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone, who would get an Oscar for his screenplay. Hayes has written a couple of follow-ups to his original book and has carved a niche for himself as a successful actor and director. Thus, it is not surprising that he would end up in a one-many show. The production is as bare bones as you can get, as the "set design" consists of a stool that Hayes sits on while he relates his thrilling tales. He is charismatic, witty and can weave a good yarn without ever arousing suspicion that he may be exaggerating his experiences. In fact, elements of his hippie personality are still very much in evidence by the fact that, if anything, he underplays some of the more dramatic aspects of his legendary experiences. For example, he takes issue with the way his story was presented in the film, pointing out that he never killed a prison guard and debunking other aspects of the script. He is also dissatisfied that the film completely excluded his post-prison escape via rowboat. He is more passionate about the effect the film had on worldwide audiences. Hayes maintains that his guards were sadistic and the legal system in Turkey is corrupt, but says he has great affection for the Turkish people. Thus, it still irks him that every Turk depicted in the movie was cast in a villainous light. In fact, the film was responsible for a 95% decline in tourism to the country in the year after it was released .
Hayes is refreshingly modest and self-effacing, blaming himself for being dumb enough to deal with drugs in Turkey. He claims he intended to do his time until his sentence was changed, an action he believes was influenced by President Nixon's crackdown on world wide drug trafficking. He engages the audience with a winning manner and brings both laughter and pathos to his tales, pointing out that there was some good to come of the experience. For example, he met his wife when attending the Cannes Film Festival premiere of the film and they are still together today. Hayes finishes every performance with a Q&A session that the audience responds to with great enthusiasm. If I have any criticism of the show, it's that he told some wonderful anecdotes (especially about the film) during the Q&A that should be included in the show itself.
Riding the Midnight Express is a memorable evening of theater that will appeal to any real life or armchair adventurer. Billy Hayes is a master storyteller who doesn't have to fictionalize any elements of his true life adventures: they are incredible enough.
(The show runs through March 23. Billy Hayes greets the audience after every performance and personally signs copies of his books in the lobby.)
Click here for the show's official web site and ticket information.