Culture

Tennessee Williams’ Milk Train Stops – This Time for Olympia Dukakis

New York Magazine's Scott Brown recently theorized that Julie Taymor's embattled Spider-Man musical “isn't really about Spider-Man. It’s about an artist locked in a death grapple with her subject, a tumultuous relationship between a talented, tormented older woman and a callow young stud. Strip out the $70 million in robotic guywires, Vari-lites, and latex mummery, and you’re basically looking at a Tennessee Williams play."

Well, one of the plays he's referring to is "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," which was just revived this week at the Roundabout Theatre, starring Olympia Dukakis. The play itself (which must heretofore be abbreviated as TMTDSHA) has had just as embattled a history adaptation-wise as Spidey, if not moreso. Originating as a short story about an aging woman who faces Death (in the guise of a handsome young poet) in her Italian villa, Williams' play bombed on Broadway in 1963, and then one year later a rewrite starring no less than Tallulah Bankhead was killed after only five performances.

TMTDSHA was given one final chance to find its audience when Williams adapted it to the screen in 1968. The film was entitled “Boom!” (referring to "the shock of each moment, of still being alive") and it unfortunately made the woes of the theatrical version seem pale in comparison (actually, next to the sun-drenched stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, literally everything seems pale in comparison). Forty-seven-year-old Burton took on the role of the young poet; Noël Coward – yes, that Noël Coward – had a delightfully bitchy part as "The Witch of Capri." Here's the original trailer, which almost makes it look like a real movie ... almost.

(Here also is the Noël Coward scene.)

“Boom!” was dismissed as an utter failure by just about everyone, but it's become a cult favorite of people like John Waters and Roger Ebert (whose review proclaimed it "a film for voyeurs"). To this day it's still not available on DVD – however, my local video store had a VHS copy, so you should check and see if yours does too. To fresh eyes it's a gorgeous mess – sun-bleached, drug-fueled, and downright apocalyptic, like so many films of the late ‘60s.

So by now you have to be wondering: Is the 2011 revival of TMTDSHA any good? Like, any good at all? Yes, apparently it is! The New York Times has hailed Dukakis as a success in this "fitfully moving, patchily eloquent but often preposterous drama," and Backstage claims: "If any production can undo the decades of unwarranted critical scorn heaped on 'Milk Train,' this is the one." That's definitely better than anything you've read about Spider-Man. So, while Julie Taymor frantically consults the handbook in preparation for Spidey's official debut, you can still get the satisfaction of backing a historically notorious Broadway underdog -- for about half the price.

Image above: Darren Pettie and Olympia Dukakis in "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore"/© Joan Marcus, 2011, Courtesy of The Roundabout Theater

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