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Theatre in Review: The Rose Tattoo (American Airlines Theatre)

Marisa Tomei. Photo: Joan Marcus.

It's nice to see some interest once again in the second-tier works of Tennessee Williams. (Note to producers: We do not need revivals of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in endless regular rotation.) The West End recently saw a fine revival of The Night of the Iguana -- a play not seen in New York for twenty-three years -- starring Clive Owen, Anna Gunn, and Lia Williams. The Rose Tattoo is only an occasional visitor to these parts -- it was here last in 1995 -- for reasons that are, perhaps, obvious once one sees it. Even among Williams' works, it is a hothouse flower that needs special loving care if it is to bloom; the Roundabout Theatre Company revival, staged by Trip Cullman, seems to wilt from too much harsh sunlight.

The Rose Tattoo, which was a solid hit for Williams in 1951, was described by Elia Kazan -- who declined to direct it -- as "a kind of comic-grotesque Mass said in praise of the Male Force." That pretty much sums up this boisterous tale of passion lost and found in a colony of Italian immigrants on the Gulf Coast. The life of Serafina Delle Rose, a seamstress possessed of an indomitable character and famed for her skill, is shattered when her husband, Rosario (who is never seen) -- a truck driver with a little sideline in drug smuggling -- is killed in an accident. As the script makes brazenly clear, Serafina and Rosario enjoyed a profound sexual connection. Deprived of a sensuality that was as necessary to her as bread and water and grief-struck by the miscarriage that occurred immediately after Rosario's death, Serafina shuts herself up in her house, keeping her daughter, Rosa, a virtual prisoner. She has built a shrine to Rosario, his ashes resting on a shelf surrounded by votive candles as a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary looks on. Furiously fending off the whispers of her neighbors, she finally cannot deny that Rosario was unfaithful, an admission that sends her into a deathly depression. This cues the entrance of Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a lusty, well-built truck driver whose physique (if not his face) is a copy of Rosario's. But Rosario allegedly came from a good family -- Serafina is called "the Baroness" by her friends and neighbors -- while Alvaro is a genial loser who works hard at propping up a trio of female relatives. She is stunned by his resemblance to Rosario, yet resistant to their obvious mutual chemistry. Still, the spark is real -- along with the possibility of a new life -- if Serafina can liberate herself from the past.

The Rose Tattoo is a tricky proposition, its obsession with sexual passion the product of a repressive American decade and a playwright whose soul was cleaved by extremes of libertine behavior and Puritan thought. As is so often the case with Williams' plays, its effect depends on having the right leading lady. He wrote the role of Serafina for Anna Magnani, who declined to risk Broadway in a language not her own. (She did the film, giving a performance that some Williams fans consider definitive.) Instead, the part went to the twenty-five-year-old (!) Maureen Stapleton, who enjoyed a triumph, as did her leading man, Eli Wallach. As such casting choices should make clear, the actress playing Serafina needs to suggest peasant stock, her feet spiritually planted in the soil of Sicily and her head full of Catholic symbology and Sicilian mysticism and folklore; she must also convey a need for carnality that emanates from her core. It's not easy to think of a current actress for whom such requirements would be a natural fit.

At the Roundabout, Marisa Tomei certainly has the right Italianate quality, and a gift for comedy, especially when she is contemptuously dismissing customers who fail to meet her standards or a chorus of black-clad widows who come to insinuate that Rosario wasn't such a model of fidelity. But the actress is handicapped by a high, light speaking voice and too-contemporary manner, as well as an inability to sound the darker notes of Serafina's character: One never feels her fury when tearing after an unwanted visitor or grilling Rosa about the state of her virtue. And she never quite convinces as a woman maddened with rage and/or desire; she acts these moods, studiously and strenuously, but to surprisingly little effect. Put in musical terms, she is a light-opera soubrette cast in a role meant for a Wagnerian soprano.

Even more problematic is Cullman's inability to create a coherent world for the action. Williams envisioned The Rose Tattoo as a riot of local color, surrounding Serafina with a gallery of vivid - sometimes bizarre - characters, with plenty of music and an atmosphere so palpable you can practically smell the salt air. (There's also a magic-realist element, for example when Serafina has visions of her husband's tattoo on her chest, which, to her, signal the onset of pregnancy.) The production design seems like a collection of ideas thrown at the stage: The downstage portion of Mark Wendland's is a skeletal, quick-sketch version of the playwright's desire for "an interior as colorful as a booth at a carnival," focused on Serafina's shrine to Rosario. The upstage area is dominated by rows of pink flamingos, a weirdly kitschy touch that suggests the action is unfolding in some kind of ironic hipster trailer park. The stage is surrounded on three sides by enormous video panels on which are seen Lucy Mackinnon's imagery of the Gulf of Mexico; it's a jarringly technological intrusion in a period setting and it does little to help establish the right mystical-erotic atmosphere.

The set also features a walkway extending into the auditorium, providing a point of entry for the extensive supporting cast. Cullman has engaged any number of fine performers -- including Cassie Beck as the principal of Rosa's high school; Tina Benko as Serafina's romantic rival; Andréa Burns as a watchful neighbor; Carolyn Mignini as Serafina's elderly confidante; the one-named actress Portia as an insolent customer; and Constance Shulman as The Strega, the witch figure who terrifies the locals. These and a legion of others, including a noisy cadre of children, clatter in and out, giving showily unconvincing performances that never settle on a collective tone. Honorable exceptions include Emun Elliott, bursting with ardor as the rough-edged, but good-hearted, Alvaro; Ella Rubin as Rosa, whose flourishing sexuality alarms her mother; and Burke Swanson, looking like he stepped out of a Paul Cadmus painting as the sailor to whom Rosa is irresistible.

Other pluses include Clint Ramos' period costumes, including some knockout slacks-and-blouse combinations for Benko's character and the cheap suit Alvaro dons to woo Serafina; Ben Stanton's lighting, especially when casting a moonstruck mood of romance; and Fitz Patton's music and sound design, which creates a sense of the life of the community all around, with the sounds of surf, tolling bells, passing cars, and other effects.

The second act is far livelier than the first, which is filled with endless comings and goings that never seem to amount to anything, except for the deployment of thick accents, excessively loud line readings, screeching children, and loads of arm-waving. Once the action settles down to Alvaro and Serafina's negotiation, one starts to get a sense of the charming comedy Williams had in mind. Even here, however, Cullman at times lets the action tip too much in the direction of farce. The Rose Tattoo is all about the transformative power of passion - to Williams, a life-or-death matter -- but nobody at the Roundabout seems to mean it. Cullman is an often-fine director of contemporary plays, but when it comes to period work his résumé is alarmingly thin. Everyone has to start somewhere, but this lovely, if luridly colored, passion flower from the early 1950s may not be the ideal place. --David Barbour

(23 October 2019)

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