Lightning barely strikes once in the torpid West End production of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” which marks out Juilliard grad Val Kilmer as the latest, if by no means least, Hollywood name to visit the West End. Business looks to be brisk for the limited run thanks to the star presence of the hard-working, albeit physically miscast, Kilmer, even if couples expecting a steamy night out would be better off staying in and renting the video.
Play follows the 2000 National Theater/West End stand of Tennessee Williams’ “Baby Doll,” which boasted the same director (Lucy Bailey), designer (Bunny Christie), composer (Django Bates) and distaff lead (Charlotte Emmerson), working to diminishing returns to conjure an image of America in erotic extremis.
The setting here is the same California diner cineastes will remember from the 1946 film of James M. Cain’s pulp novel, with John Garfield and Lana Turner. The movie was remade more explicitly in 1981, with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange as drifter Frank Chambers and libidinous, unhappily married waitress Cora Papadakis.
Actor-turned-scribe Andrew Rattenbury’s theater version began life last season, minus Kilmer, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and has traveled south without fixing the stop/start nature of a script that suggests a screenplay awkwardly adapted for the boards. Barely has Kilmer’s pudgy, insolent Frank swaggered on to the stage before he is pressing Emmerson’s Cora up against the furniture of Christie’s sepia-toned set, which exists to be destroyed, much like the lives of its inhabitants.
Their plan, of course, involves doing away with Cora’s husband, Nick (Joe Alessi, doubling capably in two roles, one for each act). Emblematic of the perverse nature of the evening, people expecting some flesh from the two leads will be startled to find Alessi is the only one of the principals to strip off.
As the elements rage outside, emotions gather steam in the roadside hothouse, with Cora announcing, “I got things to do” — like putting sex at the top of the menu for an eatery not exactly bursting with customers.
Before long, Frank is throwing Cora this way and that, Kilmer’s burly, baby-faced presence more suggestive of an incipient Stanley Kowalski than the “tall, hard” figure admiringly assessed by Cora. (In truth, the actor more closely resembles the “soft and greasy” figure that Cora specifically doesn’t like in her husband, Nick.) A creature “of the road,” Frank leads the first act toward a climactic car wreck, the result of which hangs portentously over the second-act stage design of Christie, who evidently never met a visual emblem she didn’t like.
The play inhabits a world where stealing a man’s car is evidently more shameful than absconding with his wife, which only ups the disconcerting ante of a scenario that increasingly revolves around the none-too-scintillating issue of insurance.
Brit observers will be tempted to lay the blame for the low voltage largely at the feet of Kilmer, though Emmerson’s pasty, blank-faced Cora isn’t exactly the amorous catalyst of one’s dreams. Uneasy with the script’s quicksilver reversals of mood, the English thesp has improved since “Baby Doll,” but not a lot.
Bates’ score and Mic Pool’s sound design work overtime to rattle the audience’s nerves. But when it comes to heat, “Postman” seems to have taken a cue from lighting designer Nigel Edwards, who knocks out a bulb or two on the sign for the Twin Oaks diner right on cue. “A place is no better than its sign,” muses Frank during the storm that ensues, and an audience can only nod, waiting patiently for wattage that is never restored.