Monday, January 17, 2011

Either Stop the Milk Train Forever, or Find Its Poetic Soul

Someday, someone may be able to bring out whatever poetry lies hidden in Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.   But that’s unfortunately not true of those who have mounted the current production at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.

Milk Train, which notably died in back-to-back short-lived productions on Broadway in the early 1960s, has stubbornly defied the best efforts of such skilled actresses as Hermione Baddeley, Tallulah Bankhead, and Elizabeth Ashley.

Now it has claimed its latest victim, Olympia Dukakis, who cannot tame the lead role of Flora “Sissy” Goforth despite a totally out-there performance that embodies the likes of Mae West, Norma Desmond, King Lear, and Kabuki drag queen. 

It’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with the play itself.   The general outline is this:  Mrs. Goforth, the wealthy, aging self-proclaimed “old swamp bitch from Georgia,” has holed up on a cliff-top villa along Italy’s Amalfi Coast in order to dictate her memoirs.  She has hired the recently widowed and much younger Frances Black, whom she dubs “Blackie,” to be at her beck and call 24/7—whenever she feels inspired to give a bit of rambling discourse about her life and loves.    

Into their lives comes Chris, a no-longer-young beach bum/artist/gigolo, who has picked up the nickname of “Angel of Death” for his reputation of latching onto dying rich widows. Although, if his intent is larcenous, he doesn’t seem to have prospered much through his efforts, and he enters the scene bedraggled, starving, and exhausted.

There is much that could be done with this combination of characters, a triangle involving some combination of love, lust, greed, and self-delusion--especially the latter.

Think of Norma Desmond, that most memorable of characters in Billy Wilder’s classic darkly comic film, Sunset Boulevard.  What makes the role of Norma so effective is the character’s absolute belief in herself.  That’s precisely what we should see in Mrs. Goforth and in Chris—two lost souls caught up on some gothic dreamscape of their own making.

But it just doesn’t work.  Williams’s gift as a writer was always in his poetic use of language and imagery.  Sadly, there is precious little of that gift to be found in this most prosaic of plays.  Every line is leaden and lands with a thud, and what should be ethereal is clunky and inane.

As to the production, only Maggie Lacey as Blackie comes off as appropriately cast and has a real handle on her role. 

If we are going to believe that Chris, even as a fading pretty boy, still holds some allure for young widows and women of a certain age—and, in this particular production, for flamboyant, bitchy gay men—then he should at least look like a fading pretty boy, and a very underfed one that that.  For example, Tab Hunter was well-cast to play against Tallulah Bankhead’s Mrs. Goforth in the play’s very brief run early in 1964.  Here Darren Pettie neither looks the part nor brings out any of the personality of a successful gigolo or beach boy or artist. 

As for Olympia Dukakis, while she certainly is a formidable actress, she loses the battle for any sort of believability every time she opens her mouth to speak.  Swamp bitch from Georgia? I don’t think so.  South Boston, maybe, but not Tennessee Williams’s South.  Wearing a Harpo Marx wig and channeling Mae West as Cho-Cho-San in drag doesn’t exactly help sell the image.   

Credit sound designer John Gromada, who has managed to give us a real sense of the sea tide and waves roughly smashing into the rocks at the base of the cliff.  Not sure of the intended imagery, but it gives the play the thrum of inevitability and the relentlessness of nature that is otherwise missing.  Despite the failures of the play itself, surely director Michael Wilson, who was not averse to changing the gender of one of the characters, could have done a little more bending in order to find a better balance between reality and delusion.

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