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Review: The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore

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I suppose the first hard thing about reviewing a piece of theatre is the critical and necessary requirement of having seen a lot of it.  I, an actor since my middle school days, have seen less theatre than just about anyone involved in the medium I know.  I often remark to my brother, who is an electrical engineer, that he probably knows theatre better than I do, at least from a non-participant perspective.  So how do I, an actor, one who has studied theatre and certainly knows a good performance when I see one, review the immensity of an entire show, when I have so little personal history to compare it to?

Well, I don’t honestly know.  But I am going to try.

I had the pleasure of traveling to just outside Times Square tonight and finding myself at the Laura Pels Theatre, one of the more intimate spaces owned by Roundabout Theatre Company, one of the pre-eminent NYC producing powerhouses that lately, in quite a few people’s opinions, have produced less-than-stellar shows.  Many quote the garbled vision of Hedda Gabler that went up a few seasons ago as a particular low-point in recent Broadway, Off-Broadway, and indeed, even Off-Off Broadway shows.  Still, a ticket to see Olympia Dukakis, one of the most celebrated actresses of both stage and screen in America, was not an opportunity to be missed.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is one of Tennessee Williams’ later plays, and many of his themes remain the same.  The main character, Flora Goforth, is an aging Southern Belle from Georgia, a former chorus girl who married rich, but found love in a reckless young poet (her fourth marriage).  Chris, another poet and rambler who shows up on her doorstep, is an enigma of shifting sexualities and ideals.  He might be Tom seen ten years down the road, trying to atone for the abandonment of his sister.  Much of the action of the play centers around a kind of metaphoric, philosophic dance between these two, with other characters coming and going throughout their dangerous diatribes.

In the original script, Williams makes use of two stage assistants, dressed in black and set apart from the action, but still a piece of the whole.  In his notes, he describes the play as something more theatrical, more removed from reality than the approach Michael Wilson and his team take.  The two assistants (the “balletic duo” as Williams refers to them) are completely cut from the script.  Wilson’s approach then, is to highlight the sumptuous and bacchanalistic  foreplay of each of the characters.  Much of this play is motivated by sex, and sex, being the giver of life, bestows upon Flora a few last days of erotic interplay.

The play begins with the two servant characters lustily groping each other onstage, before the action of life begins to flow around them.  Each character then weaves their way around Flora, the dictator of her mountain on the sea, a steep goat-path the thing separating her from humanity, a place she has come to publish her memoirs.  “Blackie,”  as Flora calls her, is the nubile young assistant/secretary there to take dictation of Flora’s story.  She is on the verge of going mad making sense of it all, just as Flora is losing her mind trying dull the pain of death.  Suddenly, into their midst, a beautiful young man shows up and throws all of them into the clutches of the hot Italian summer.

The acting is very good, and at times, with Dukakis at the helm, even transcendent.  She is radiant, terrifying, completely mad, and stunningly seductive as the very aged queen of her villa.  This being a preview, one can see her nearly taking shape, and a production seen later in this run will most likely reveal a fuller portrait of this very rich character, or at least a character Dukakis has bestowed her rich talent upon to grasp three-dimensionality.  Darren Pettie, an actor I recently saw in the wonderful Pinter revival of The Collection at CSC, illuminates all of Chris’s danger and rampant sexuality, but his hard-edged tone, especially in tender moments, becomes a bit too one-note as the show goes on.  Maggie Lacey displays a wonderful vulnerability as the assistant Blackie and her first scene with Dukakis was especially enjoyable.  Edward Hibbert, notable for his turn on Frasier as Gil Chesterton, makes a wonderful cameo.  I have not seen a better predator onstage in quite some time.

The production is, on the whole, an enjoyable evening of theater.  I believe, however, the flaw lies in its self-awareness to its own romanticism.  Much of the more philosophical dialogue is muddied because of the perpetual grinding hips and full frontal nudity.  I agree with Williams: this play is not situated in our reality, and though the set certainly suggests a kind of cherubic Mount Olympus, only Dukakis succeeds at getting near Aeschylus in her scope of character and emotion.  At one point we find that Chris’ other passion, beside giving older women his services, is building mobiles, delicate shapes of glass and iron balanced perfectly to chime in the wind.  This production could use a bit more balance and the script a bit less wind.


Written by Seth James

January 28, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Posted in Reviews