Monday, April 04, 2011

Ah the last show in New York... always a tricky one to get right. You can end up with a SOUTH PACIFIC or if you are unlucky, you get CRY-BABY.

This year marks the centenary of Tennessee Williams' birth so to get the party started the Roundabout Theatre Company were staging his 1963 play THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE at the *big breath* Laura Pels Theatre at Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center For Theatre.Far be it from an American to donate to the arts anonymously. There was the Hymie Goldfinkle Staircase, the George Bumfarter Gents Restroom, the Shagger Beikenhoff Bar etc. etc. - and none of it was all that to be honest. Harold and Miriam could have picked a better architect.

I have to applaud Roundabout however for putting the play on as it has a dodgy track record. Williams wrote it under the shadow of the failing health of his lover Frank Merlo - something Williams could not face - and the first Broadway production closed after a month although Hermione Baddely was nominated for a Tony for Best Actress.

Merlo died from stomach cancer and Williams sunk his pain and guilt into rewriting MILK TRAIN which re-opened a year after the first in a new production directed by Tony Richardson with the jaw-dropping cast of Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter as Flora Goforth and Christopher Flanders. However it was greeted with even less enthusiasm and closed after only 5 performances.

For some unfathomable reason, Joseph Losey filmed it in 1968 with Williams rewriting the play for the screen. Renamed BOOM! the film starred a totally miscast Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and it further charted their decline into box office poison.

The play's last London outing was at the Lyric Hammersmith with Rupert Everett as Flora Goforth - yes, as Flora - directed by Philip Prowse. It's a rare role that can be played by such distinctive players as Baddely, Bankhead, Taylor and, um, Everett - and now it's Olympia Dukakis' turn to have a go.

Flora Goforth is dying, a fact acknowledged by everyone but Flora who refuses to give in to the inevitable and rages against the night by racing through the dictation of her memoirs to meet her publisher's - and maker's - deadline. She is aided by her secretary Blackie although she isn't much happier as she is still mourning the sudden death of her husband and bridles against Flora's incessant demands on her time.

Flora chides Blackie for her mourning - she has buried a string of husbands whose fortunes now keep her in lavish surroundings in a villa on the Italian coast. Now, recollecting her progress from showgirl to millionairess, she acknowledges the loss of her young first husband and the lost chance of companionship with the death of her last.

Into their closed world, comes itinerant poet and mobile-maker - go know - Chris Flanders who is acting upon a possible past invitation from Flora to visit the villa. Flora likes what she sees and thinks that he will be the answer to her problems.

In a way he is... her bitchy gossip friend The Witch of Capri tells her that Flanders is known in their circles as The Angel of Death as he has a habit of being with elderly wealthy women when they die.

And there you have it... Flora rages louder and more desperately against the encroaching darkness and Chris' presence, Blackie realises that there is a life to be lived and Chris waffles on about life, death, poetry and mobiles.MILK TRAIN started the decline in Williams' output with the onset of his alcohol and pills addictions and it shows. Like the glass mobile that twirls at the side of the stage, flashes of his genius illuminate the text occasionally but much of the text seems to be writing for the sake of writing, as if by doing this he hoped that the play might form itself.

The production was directed by Mike Wilson who helmed the play in 2009 in Connecticut with Dukakis and while a perfectly adequate production I am not sure why he felt the urge to stage it as his obvious passion for the play is not felt in it's staging.The supporting cast went through various stages of adequacy but overall Maggie Lacey as Blackie was monotonously one-note - she could do 'terse secretary' but the human heart that is being denied was nowhere to be seen. Darren Pettie played Christopher Flanders adequately enough but again I was left feeling vaguely frustrated as his Angel of Death had all the enigma of a carpet salesman. I am also not sure the production had to hold such a long beat when he whipped his towel off - it was like a penis, only thinner.

Continuing the casting gender twist that started when Losey cast Noel Coward as The Witch of Capri in BOOM!, in this production Broadway's default waspish queen Edward Hibbert played that role.

He did his usual shtick and certainly gave the show a galvanising bitchy uplift, his heightened theatrical style seemed at odds with the naturalistic playing of Lacey and Pettie but it was all the more welcome for that.

And then there was Olympia Dukakis. I had seen her before on stage in 1999 at the National in the rather dull one-woman play ROSE so I was aware of her scouring powder quality onstage. She don't do soft.

It certainly was a fascinating performance - Tennessee has Flora's moods change almost in the blink of an eye going from a tough old broad to introspection, from sorrow to anger, from cutesy to belligerent, from swaggering to frightened. It's a big ask for any actress brave enough to put herself out there out of their comfort zone. Suddenly Vanessa Redgrave has sprung to mind!

On the whole - physically and emotionally - I think she triumphed apart from one fatal error. She played the role like she was doing an impression of Foghorn Leghorn. And there was me thinking it was only British actors who overdid the Southern accents. No word was knowingly let go without a couple of vowel sounds boinging away in the middle like a slapped ruler. But here I am. a week and a bit after seeing it and I am still haunted by her.Apart from her haunting performance, what I take away from the event is my flat refusal to ever go to a matinee at the Laura Pels Theatre again. I was appalled at the behaviour of the mainly octogenarian audience who you would think would know how to behave in a theatre - the kids at SPIDER-MOOSE knew to shut up - why the fuck can't you lot?

Talking loudly during the start of this tricky play, zipping and unzipping handbags, rustling sweet papers... I had half a mind to stand up and request Christopher Flanders work his deathly magic on the noisy old cows and alter kockers in the audience and leave Flora be.

Oh and Constant Reader? Owen has made me promise never to take him to a Tennessee Williams play again. So stand by to be ready for some theatre trips....

No comments: