As Serafina Delle Rose, a grieving Italian-American widow struggling to open herself to life again in Tennessee Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo,” Marisa Tomei bares just about all, emotionally speaking. Sorrow hollows out Serafina’s heart and numbs her senses in one scene, to be followed by tempests of rage at the gossips who would sully the memory of her beloved husband. Later, tears of compassion flow, and, this being a robust romantic comedy, eventually love blossoms and bursts with the force of a fireworks display.
Unfortunately, even Tomei’s vivifying, staunchly committed performance isn’t enough to keep this ripe comedy at the emotional heights it needs to sustain. The production, directed by Trip Cullman with a sometimes shaky hand, only intermittently whips up the tempests of feeling Williams poured into it, resulting in a staging that favors blunt comedy over the heady romanticism that should form its essence.
Granted, “Rose Tattoo,” written for the great Italian actress Anna Magnani, is not from Williams’s top drawer. (Maureen Stapleton ended up starring in the original 1951 Broadway production, although Magnani made the movie.) Lighter in spirit than Williams’s finest plays, it’s also steeped in images of Italian-American life that tread close to now-stale stereotype. The principal characters — Serafina and the man who eventually woos her back to the life of the senses, Alvaro (Emun Elliott) — seem to have heart enough to wear on both sleeves, and speak in thickly accented English, with frequent explosions into Italian when their emotions are at their peak — which they almost always are.
Williams describes Serafina as looking like “a plump little Italian opera singer in the role of Madame Butterfly.” Tomei, with her trim figure and cinched-waist dresses, does not quite fill the bill, physically. But she recognizes the heightened scale of her character’s emotions: Much of Serafina’s dialogue — her reveries about the sexual satisfactions of her marriage and the titular tattoo that once appeared on her breast, her outlandish scolding of her teenage daughter, Rosa (Ella Rubin), whose romance with a sailor she excoriates — could easily be set to Puccini excerpts.
Tomei, an Academy Award winner for her role in “My Cousin Vinny,” is at her best in the scenes when, still dilapidated with grief, she begins to suspect that the husband she revered to the point of sacrilege (she keeps his ashes in an urn on a makeshift altar — hardly traditional Catholic behavior), was not as faithful to her as she believed. (Tina Benko plays the other woman, Estelle.) Tomei’s near-deranged scrabbling around the stage, barefoot, as confusion and doubt overwhelms her, does indeed reach realms of near-operatic feeling.
But often the production betrays a certain discomfort with the overpowering emotion of the characters, preferring to reduce them to players in a squabbling farce. I first saw it at the Williamstown Theatre Festival three years ago with a mostly different cast; that staging felt more cohesive. Here, the expanses of the American Airlines Theatre stage do no favors, for instance, to Mark Wendland’s set. It features a wall of large video screens on which we see waves of the Gulf Coast, where the play is set, continually lapping at the shore. It’s striking, yes, and almost mesmerizingly beautiful, but also distracting. (Another distraction: a forest of pink flamingos planted at the back of the set; I half-expected John Waters to wander on to deliver a TED Talk.) While the characters’ emotions may be epic, the play’s setting itself is modest and intimate: the interior and small yard of a Serafina’s modest home, here deconstructed to the point of confusion.
Despite significant trims, including the elimination of the character of a local priest, parts of the production feel plodding and its rhythms can feel disjointed. Some of the priest’s lines are taken over by Assunta, a mysterious figure played by Carolyn Mignini, in one of the stronger supporting roles. Also diverting are Flora (Portia) and Bessie (Paige Gilbert), two slyly sneering women who maliciously sow doubts about Serafina’s late husband’s loyalty. But “Rose Tattoo” has rather too many layers of local color, as if Williams was piling comic scaffolding to give more scope to a fairly simple structure.
As young Rosa, Serafina’s fiercely protected daughter, whose romance with that sailor drives her mother into a torrent of scathing disapproval, Rubin infuses her character with a rather bland primness that doesn’t fully reveal the tendency to romantic thralldom she has inherited from her mother. Burke Swanson, as her paramour, fares a little better in the somewhat anodyne role of the still-virginal sailor Jack, who is bewildered by Serafina’s antagonism and fanatical religiosity.
Serafina’s savior arrives when the truck driver Alvaro stumbles into her yard, belligerently fuming at the cigar-chomping salesman who nearly drove him off the road (Greg Hildreth, nobly playing a blunt caricature). When the deeply mystical Serafina learns Alvaro’s occupation — the same as her late husband’s — shoots of new life spring in her heart, especially when Alvaro bursts into tears that release her own. This scene is performed with tender musicality by both. Elliott’s Alvaro — while once again not exactly fitting the physical description of the character — brings his character to full-blooded life.
But as Serafina’s and Alvaro’s relationship ripens, the play descends into almost farcical complications, with a strip of condoms flying across the stage at one point. Both Tomei and Elliott do their best to keep things on a believable level, but in the end the production’s seeming diffidence about committing to the admittedly extravagant excesses of emotion in it comes close to defeating them. By the time Serafina has fully embraced this unexpected — even unwanted — romance, some in the audience may have begun to tire of it.
“The Rose Tattoo” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on Tues., Oct. 15, 2019.
Creative: Written by Tennessee Williams; Original Music by Jason Michael Webb and Fitz Patton; Directed by Trip Cullman; Scenic Design by Mark Wendland; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Ben Stanton; Sound Design by Fitz Patton; Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon.
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company; Presented by special arrangement with University of the South.
Cast: Cassie Beck, Alexander Bello, Tina Benko, Andréa Burns, Susan Cella, Emun Elliott, Paige Gilbert, Greg Hildreth, Isabella Iannelli, Jacob Michael Laval, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Carolyn Mignini, Portia, Ella Rubin, Jennifer Sánchez, Constance Shulman, Burke Swanson, Marisa Tomei.