There are many cues to what’s wrong with this overly broad third Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ dated play, starring Marisa Tomei as Serafina Delle Rose, a Sicilian immigrant seamstress who turns from besotted wife to grieving widow to betrayed widow (because her husband had a mistress) to hopeful new lover. There are the dozens of plastic pink flamingos, which are the most kitschy touch in Mark Wendland’s misbegotten set. There are the annoying, scampering children, who represent Trip Cullman’s awkward direction of the sprawling 18-member cast. But the clincher for me was the bigoted salesman.
At the top of Act II, Greg Hildreth (who was so great as Olaf in Frozen) has the thankless role of a sloppy salesman who intrudes on Serafina’s home to sell her something she doesn’t want. Suddenly, a stranger named Alvaro (Emun Elliott) bursts into her home to complain to the salesman about his having just driven his truck off the road.
“Is something giving you gas pains, Macaroni?” the salesman sneers.
“My name is not Macaroni,” Alvaro protests.
“All right. Spaghetti.”
“I am not macaroni. I am not spaghetti. I am a human being that drives a truck of bananas.”
In this way, Williams lets us know that on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in 1951, which is when the play is set and when Williams wrote it, Italian-Americans were dismissed as something less than fully human.
This is how Serafina meets Alvaro. But what follows is a dance of romance between the two that is meant to be funny and charming and heartwarming but presents these Italian-Americans as something less than the fully human characters for which Williams is justly lauded.
The playwright has to take some of the blame for this patronizing depiction. One stage direction reads: “Their fumbling communication has a curious intimacy and sweetness, like the meeting of two lonely children for the first time.” Like two children.
The production exacerbates this view by presenting a broad comedy, making us see these characters from the outside. How else to explain why these two Italian immigrants speak to each other in heavily accented, cutesy broken English rather than just speaking in Italian. (Yes, it’s an English-language play for an English-speaking audience, but plenty of writers have managed a workaround — subtitles, for example, or simply an understanding that the characters are speaking in their native language even though we hear them in fluent English.)
Tomei does her best at portraying an earthy peasant woman, superstitious and suspicious who prays at a shrine of the Madonna for signs to tell her of her fate and guide her future. She is certainly the stand-out in the cast. But those of us who have seen the 1955 movie starring Anna Magnani are likely to feel Tomei has been miscast — too svelte and put-together to play this passionate character from the inside.
The Roundabout production of The Rose Tattoo is most useful in helping us understand why there have been so relatively few Broadway revivals of this play, compared to The Glass Menagerie – revived seven times – and A Streetcar Named Desire – eight times. It will surely come as a surprise – and a comment on changing tastes and values? — that The Rose Tattoo is the only work by Williams to have won the Tony Award for Best Play.
The Rose Tattoo is on stage at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater (227 W 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Aves, New York, NY 10036) through December 8, 2019
The Rose Tattoo.Written by Tennessee Williams; Directed by Trip Cullman. Set design by Mark Wendland, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Fitz Patton, projection design by Lucy Mackinnon, hair and wig design by Tom Watson, makeup design by Joe Dulude II, fight director by Thomas Schall dialect coach Charlotte Fleck, Original Music, Arrangements & Music Direction by Jason Michael Web. Featuring
Marisa Tomei, Cassie Beck Alexander Bello, Tina Benko, Susan Cella, Emun Elliott, Paige Gilbert, Greg Hildreth, Isabella Iannelli, Jacob Michael Laval, Antoinette Lavecchia, Kecia Lewis, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Portia, Ella Rubin, Jennifer Sánchez, Constance Shulman and Burke Swanson. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.