By Karen Isaacs
The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams is much less frequently revived than Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Glass Menagerie or even Summer and Smoke, Night of the Iguana and Suddenly, Last Summer. Since it opened in 1951 (and won the Tony Award for best play) it has been revived on Broadway only twice before.
So a revival of the show is highly anticipated. I wish that I could say that the Roundabout Theatre production starring Marisa Tomei lived up to the anticipation. Unfortunately it didn’t.
Rose Tattoo differs from the more “normal” Williams; while set in the south (the Gulf Coast to be specific) if focuses not on genteel, Southern womanhood but on an ethnic community.
Serafina Della Rosa is a woman passionately in love with her husband, Rosario. She talks endlessly about their lovemaking, his physique and the fact that in Sicily he is a “barone.” The other Italian women of the neighborhood are somewhat more jaundiced about these claims.
One eveing, Serafina is waiting for her husband, a truck driver who smuggles things beneath the bananas to come home; supposedly this was last trip. He’s going to quit, buy his own truck and strike out on his own. While she is waiting, a sophisticated woman visits her and offers to pay exorbitantly to make a rose silk shirt for the woman’s lover. Serafina agrees. Later that night, Rosario is killed in an accident.
Three years later. Serafina has spent the years confined to her house, seldom dressing, still in wild mourning for the loss of her Rosario and their passionate, perfect marriage. In her state of mind, she is preventing her daughter, Rosa, from getting ready to attend her high school graduation. (Let’s not speculate how the 15-year-old is able to graduate). Serafina has locked her clothes to keep her from seeing her new boyfriend, the sailor brother of a friend.
That graduation day is a day of changes for both Rosa and Serafina. For Serafina, it smashes her illusions of the husband she still worshiped. She learns, as the other women already knew that Rosario had been having a long term affair with a blackjack dealer at the local casino; the sophisticated woman who had wanted the rose colored silk shirt made the day he died. It is also the day she meets Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a young Italian truck drive who Serafino feels looks (at least from the neck down) like her husband. It begins to stir something in her. It is also the day when her daughter asserts her independence and leaves the next morning to visit her boyfriend in New Orleans.
Director Trip Cullman has made some interesting choices in this production; some work but others don’t.
First, he has used the women of the community almost as a Greek chorus or an opera chorus. These women are all dressed in black and often move silently. Many times they are singing or chanting. This reinforces the sisterhood of these Italian women. A group children are constantly running around the stage, playing and making noise as children do.
In a casting decision, Cullman has removed most of the men from the cast; sometimes changing the character to female. So there is no priest in this version of the play. Certainly it emphasizes that this play is focused on the woman and the female community.
The set design by Mark Wendland lets you feel like you are at the beach. There is sand surrounding Serafina’s hose and the backdrop are projections of the water and the sky which changes colors to reflect, sunrise, daytime, sunset and nighttime.
Between Serafina’s house and the water are dozens of plastic pink flamingos. The bird is often said to represent strong emotions and flirtation among its many other (and sometimes contradictory) meaning. Of course, the pink color is associated with femininity.
But any production of The Rose Tattoo, rises and falls on the performances of the actor playing Serafina and in the second act, Alvaro Mangiacavallo. The list of actors playing these roles is a illustrious one. The original cast was Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach, the 1955 film was Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster, Stapleton was paired with Harry Guardino in the 1966 revival, and Mercedes Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia was in the 1995 revival. I saw Maria Tucci in the role at Williamstown Theater Festival in 1989 with James Naughton. Marisa Tomei played the daughter in that production.
In this production Tomei starts the play at such a high emotional level that she has nowhere to go when she learns of Rosario’s death. Every gesture and facial expression is exaggerated. When she first sees Alvaro, she reacts as if she were in a silent movie in expressing her awareness of his physical attractiveness and similarity to her husband.
Too often, the audience laughs when they should be understanding more of her deep grief, depression and he disillusionment. While some comic moments are in the play, they are not only exaggerated but others are found.
As Alvario, Emun Elliott does make in more obviously conniving then often. It is much clearer that he is thinking of Serafina as a meal ticket, to give him security. Elliott did not project the macho magnetism that you would expect and he and Tomei lit few emotional fires. It is a perfectly acceptable performance but not anything that really illuminates the characters.
Ella Rubin plays Serafina’s daughter, Rosa as a sweet girl who is aware of much more than she lets on; she has, to some extent, had to be the adult while Serafina has functioned only some of the time. Burke Swanson plays her boyfriend, as the puppy dog type late teenager; he may be a sailor but he is as innocent as she is.
If you have never seen The Rose Tattoo this production may cause to wonder about its place in the Williams lexicon.
For tickets visit, Roundabout Theatre.. The play runs through Dec. 8.