By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated January 31, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST
Joan Marcus

An unfortunate cloud of realism hovers over the Roundabout’s decidedly conventional Off Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ difficult and anything-but-conventional drama The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.

Flora Goforth (Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis) is one of Williams’ kookiest heroines, a battle-ax of a Southern belle withering away in a villa on Italy’s Divina Costiera. Fueled almost entirely by coffee, codeine, and cognac, she spends her days (and nights) dictating her nonsensical memoirs — via loudspeaker! — to her put-upon secretary Miss Black, a.k.a. Blackie (Maggie Lacey, saddled with perhaps the worst-written female role in the Williams canon). That is, when Flora’s not doped up on morphine. The woman dresses for dinner like a Kabuki dancer — wig, fan, choreography, and all. She’s completely unhinged, in a fascinating train-wreck kind of way.

Considering that her name is Goforth — if you didn’t get it, Williams, in a super-heavy-handed moment, makes her spell it out (”it’s my turn, now, to go forth”) — why do things get so dull when the Angel of Death arrives? Seriously. That’s the nickname of the much younger gentleman caller Christopher Flanders (Darren Pettie), who has a habit of befriending elderly ladies right before they shuffle off this mortal coil.

But the dance of death between Flora and Flanders is awkward at best and embarrassing at worst — and not just because he’s wearing a satin robe and a samurai sword. There’s no depth in Pettie’s eyes, no seduction in his manner, and his voice is practically robotic. Though Flora immediately sets out to ensnare him, there’s nothing alluring about him beyond his chiseled good looks. (Admittedly, she could do laundry on his abs.) Dukakis gives an appropriately mannered performance, but her molasses-thick accent — which recalls her Claree from Steel Magnolias, with a little Mae West thrown in for good measure — obscures even the simplest lines: ”You’re attractive to me” sounds like ”You’re attracted to me.”

Only Edward Hibbert, as Sissy’s supremely bitchy frenemy, the Witch of Capri, seems fully attuned to the play’s eccentricities. In other words, he knows he’s in Crazytown and he’s enjoying his stay. So Hibbert swans in, trades barbs with Sissy, spills the beans on Flanders’ past, puts the moves on the mysterious fellow, pitches a hissy fit, then swishes out. He’s an absolute delight. (Fun fact: The role is traditionally played by a woman, though the camp-tastic 1968 movie version, Boom!, starred a too-young Liz Taylor, a too-old Richard Burton, and Noël Coward as the Witch.)

One other bright spot: Director Michael Wilson (The Orphans’ Home Cycle) has woven together the many different iterations of Williams’ script into a rather coherent, quite possibly definitive version. First and foremost, he did away with the Kabuki stage assistants. Mrs. Goforth’s pre-dinner dance break is about as much Kabuki as any production of Milk Train needs. C

(Tickets: RoundaboutTheatre.org or 212-719-1300)

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