This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
There are no second chances in life; but in the theater, there are revivals. One local theater that's been particularly good at reviving old plays—especially plays that people wouldn't consider worth re-staging—is the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.
Five years ago the Fountain revived Arthur Miller's much-hated play After the Fall and somehow turned it into a piece that was not only watchable but engaging. So I took note this fall when the Fountain revived another 1960's stinker by a great American playwright: Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. Milk Train was written in 1962 for a festival in Italy, then produced on Broadway a year later. It was not a hit, but someone believed in the play enough to stage it again on Broadway the next year—starring Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter. That was an even bigger flop, lasting only five performances. Further infamy came to Milk Train when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made it into a movie in 1968, re-titled it Boom! and has gone to be placed on many lists as one the worst films Hollywood films of all time.
If anyone could make something of this tarnished work it would be the Fountain. Director Simon Levy and lead actress Karen Kondazian both have had past success interpreting Tennessee Williams' plays—and it shows here. They don't approach this shaggy drama with fear. Rather than trying to re-write the work or set it somewhere completely new, they've simply made cuts and generally scrubbed the play up as much as possible.
Unfortunately, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore cannot be saved. It was a train wreck in the 1960's and the passage of time doesn't help it back on the tracks. Milk Train represents Williams at his florid, self-indulgent worst. The main character, "a dying monster" in the words of a supporting player, is named Flora Goforth. (Yes, that's really the dying character's name.) Goforth spends her time reminiscing about her many dead husbands and micro-managing the money they left her. It's a high camp role and Kondazian manages to ground the character and give the play as much of a center as possible; but just about everything besides Flora Goforth is either ridiculous or just plain boring.
The one exception is Goforth's friend, nicknamed The Witch of Capri. The part was written for a woman, but here Levy casts the role with a man in drag. Perhaps this is a nod to the film, where Noel Coward played the witch; but whatever the reason, it doesn't work. Even if it is interesting, drag only serves to make the already silly play that much harder to take seriously.
Like the Fountain, the Blank Theatre (also in Hollywood) has been known to revive flawed works and make them shine. John LaChiusa's maligned musical The Wild Party didn't impress me much during its Broadway run back in 2000, but last year The Blank brought this jazz-era show to life in a small Hollywood theater—so I recently went back to see what they're doing with another LaChiusa musical that didn't initially impress critics or audiences, titled Little Fish.
Like Milk Train, Little Fish's lack of success is not a fluke. LaChiusa's music features tortured melodies and forced rhymes that strain to sound sophisticated. Little Fish is adapted from short stories by Deborah Eisenberg, but as translated to the stage, the show plays like a student's Sex in the City spec script. (Perhaps one day, a radically modern—probably German—director could stage Little Fish in a way that frames the unappealing songs in a way that makes them a comment on the lack of soul or passion in America during the early 21st century, but that's a stretch.)
While some shows anchored by bad reviews or bad box-office can eventually float to success—for most, there's a reason they sink and stay sunk.
Little Fish at the Blank Theatre and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore at the Fountain Theatre both run though this Sunday.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image: Ed Krieger