Rupert Everett is already seated onstage as the audience arrives for “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” which is no bad thing since it takes time to adjust to the sight at hand. Face drawn and heavily made up, reddish hair brushed back so as to set off gold jewelry adorning an androgynous black pantsuit, the actor disdainfully surveys the house. Then, he starts his scales as a vocal warm-up that becomes an anguished cry, and we are into the peculiar, pained world of one of Tennessee Williams’ oddest plays.
A startling opening to a rare revival of a rarely seen play, the beginning of Philip Prowse’s production isn’t always matched by what follows. But it’s not necessary to have admired Everett long before he hit Hollywood pay dirt in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” to point out that the production shouldn’t be easily dismissed. As ornery and quirky as the play itself, Prowse’s staging is the quintessence of a certain school of British theater, just as “Milk Train” is in some ways a thematic distillation of its playwright. You may come away exasperated, but you’re unlikely to be bored.
This production began three years ago at Glasgow’s Citizens Theater, begetter of the all-male “Travels With My Aunt” that starred Jim Dale in New York. Like that show, the current one casts aside conventions of design, tone and gender to offer an artifice-laden take on a paradigmatic Williams pairing: the aging, pining woman and the mysterious young drifter, who in “Milk Train” happens to be “the angel of death.” At times, it’s as if the Wooster Group had been let loose on the 1963 play in a further attempt to revise a work that Williams himself rewrote three times — four, if you include Joseph Losey’s 1968 film “Boom,” with Elizabeth Taylor in Everett’s current part as Flora Goforth.
“Everything’s urgentissimo,” says Everett’s pasty-faced, ailing Flora atop her Mediterranean retreat during a break from dictating her memoirs to secretary Blackie (Jane Bertish). But “Milk Train” is rarely played with urgency: Instead, a neutral, deliberately flat delivery prevails, alongside a tendency — in the first act, especially — to rush the speech as if the actors had a more interesting assignation in mind.
The result undercuts Williams’ more florid considerations of his own mortality. Prowse dispenses with the playwright’s kabuki-inspired prologue but retains a sense of ritual unfolding on an abstract set that only occasionally topples into kitsch (a glitter ball?). Everett enters gamely into some weird samurai-style routines just as he enters into Flora’s dissipation and loss, a grande dame reduced by play’s end to a white-clad grotesque crawling across the stage. In search of God, the best Flora can come up with is Christopher Flanders (a bland James X. Mitchell), the visitor newly arrived to allow Flora to “go forth” unto death. (The symbolism exists on that level.)
Rarely evident is the exercise in camp one might be led to expect. (Tallulah Bankhead, the part’s second Broadway occupant, must have been much campier.) At its core, this is a serious take on a seriously fanciful play, which is why Prowse can use music like “La vie en rose” and “Let’s Twist Again” without disturbing the rhythms of a dramatist who in “Milk Train” faces the music about that inevitable seducer, death.