Plenty of bad things have their partisans. Vegemite, for example. Leonardo DiCaprio, for another. Industrial pork farming. Ralph Reed. American Idol. And so it goes with The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, a wonderful play by Tennessee Williams being brutally murdered by Jim Tommaney and the giddy psychopaths at Edge Theatre.
Evidence of their psychosis: They've brought actor Frank Rodriguez back into circulation as a leading man. New Theatre had the right idea last summer when it cast him as a comic supporting character in Joan of Arc. It was a good place for a fledgling actor to learn. No longer does he overact like Sally Field in the wake of a botched trepanning. Now he underacts, delivering monologues that begin with a weighty, far-away look; continue with a mouth drifting into a wistful smile; and close with choir-boy lashes falling gently to rest on chiseled cheekbones. Speaking in the unnatural rhythms of a waiter explaining the night's prix fixe, and moving with the stiff enthusiasm of the most precocious child actor in an elementary school play, Rodriguez has finally ceased being offensive. Now he's simply invisible.
If only the same could be said of this Milk Train, a show so bad that only cynical people aren't still waiting for a punch line by intermission. This shouldn't be the case. Though dating from 1963, when Williams was almost out of mojo, Milk Train's script still holds up against almost anything being performed today.
If it's not as famous as The Glass Cat in a Streetcar Named Iguana, chalk it up to protagonist Chris "Angel of Death" Flanders (Rodriguez), who isn't an obvious representation of any well-worn archetype. He looks, smells, and sounds like a grifter, but he's actually a Swami-trained version of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, interested exclusively in wealthy old ladies. When he's not making sculptures or writing poems, he's bopping from one rich sick chick to the next, helping them face their deaths bravely.
As Milk Train opens, Flanders is trespassing on the property of Flora Goforth, an affluent, aging Ziegfeld widow who is composing a memoir and slowly dying on the Italian coast. She refuses to acknowledge her condition, writing off her frequent pains and constant weakness as vapors. Milk Train consists of Goforth's attempts to get into Flanders's pants, and his attempts to prove to her he's really a good guy, she's really a dying woman, and she really should consider ... well, what? Getting religion? Accepting her passing? This is unclear in Edge Theatre's Milk Train, likely because of Rodriguez's bland performance and Tommaney's directionless direction.
But Tommaney has cobbled together a decent cast. Rachel Stone's Blackie, Mrs. Goforth's gofer, is hard and businesslike when need be, but convincingly moved to moments of tenderness. Donna Wood is coolly reptilian as Connie Ridgway, a "witch from Capri" who swoops in occasionally to share goss with Goforth. Oscar Fuentes is a fine lackey/bodyguard, and Maria Kakouris Somozo, who plays Goforth, is meltingly charming as the old coquette, throwing shade like nobody's business.
But the performances refuse to gel. The problem is rhythm; these actors sound like they're trying out for the lead role in a William Shatner biopic. It's like somebody took a bunch of punctuation marks and spattered them Jackson Pollock-style all over the script, dropping commas and periods and exclamation points where none should be: "The sea and, the sky. Are turning the same color."
This would be enough to send an ordinary theatergoer screaming into the night long before the first awkward curtain call. But everybody stayed put at last Saturday's performance; a few even called the show "amazing" before they departed. Still, these were the same people who chatted among themselves when Flanders and Goforth dipped backstage to await the great lady's imminent demise. Because the offstage dialogue in that scene is supposed to be the most intensely dramatic moment of the play, I think it's safe to say these sweet partisans missed the point. I do not doubt I will receive in the next week or two a letter pointing out how many people love this production — how many gave it standing ovations and said lovely things as they filed out. I urge any potential letter writer to watch Tommaney's fans. Are they really paying attention? Is he?
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