Though Tennessee Williams is considered one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, humor is not the first thing you think of when his plays come to mind. So if you are more familiar with the wilted Southern belles, suppressed desire, and madness of his most famous works, the comical tone of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of The Rose Tattoo might take you by surprise.
The Tony Award-winning play returns to Broadway for the first time since 1995, when Mercedes Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia headed the cast. This current revival, directed by Trip Cullman and starring Academy-Award winner Marisa Tomei, initially premiered at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2016 and now plays at the American Airlines Theatre through Dec. 8.
Tomei plays Serafina Delle Rose, a proud Sicilian immigrant living happily on the Gulf Coast with her husband, Rosario, and their daughter, Rosa. Tragedy, as it often does in Williams’ work, soon strikes as Rosario dies under mysterious circumstances and Serafina is plunged into grief. Three years drift by as she moves through life in a fugue state, still mourning her husband and becoming a recluse, much to the embarrassment of the now-teenaged Rosa (Ella Rubin), who strains under her mother’s restrictions.
After learning of her husband’s infidelities, she believes she receives a sign from above in the sexy figure of Alvaro Mangiacavello, a man with striking similarities to her husband (including the mysterious rose tattoo of the play’s title). Alvaro is not without his red flags, especially to modern audiences, but as the mutual sparks fly those concerns seem less important than the fact that those sparks help bring Serafina back to life.
While a widow rediscovering her passion for life might not seem like a laugh riot, as Tomei’s Oscar can attest, she knows her way around a funny line and even amidst Serafina’s grief, she squeezes every drop of humor she can from the role, sometimes to the detriment of the play. Serafina’s grief never feels as affecting as it should, nor does the sense of betrayal from her husband’s infidelities. Tomei gives the role her all, beating her breast in grief as she prowls around the stage, but all the emotion feels curiously remote, like it’s being performed for the neighbors rather than deeply felt.
Making his Broadway debut as Alvaro, Scottish actor Emun Elliott (The Paradise, Game of Thrones) matches Tomei with a similarly energetic performance. Though he doesn’t appear until the play’s second act, he and Tomei have a natural chemistry that helps bridge the question of why Serafina would be so attracted to a man of Alvaro’s somewhat questionable character. While they make an appealing pair, sometimes their mutual mugging goes a little overboard and distracts from the sense of romance that should be building between the two.
If you’ve seen the more serious 1955 film adaptation which won Anna Magnani an Oscar, this version definitely strikes a more light-hearted note. Unfortunately, the over-emphasis on bringing out the play’s humor drains it of some of its emotional resonance. Outside of Serafina and Alvaro, few of the other characters make an impression, with cast members moving on and off the stage with barely any introduction or greater purpose except to suggest Serafina’s neighborhood is riotous and filled with Sicilian busybodies. Constance Shulman (Orange Is the New Black) appears periodically as the neighborhood witch, but her role never adds up to much despite her best efforts. Similarly, Serafina’s battles with Rosa over the girl’s blossoming sexuality don’t feel essential enough to the main story and Ella Rubin never quite succeeds in making Rosa feel like a flesh and blood teenager. And with the thick Italian and Southern accents most of the cast affects, sometimes the humor feels as subtle as an Olive Garden commercial.
The play’s scenic design, by Mark Wendland, is confusing — occasionally, it’s hard to tell whether characters are inside or outside Serafina’s house — and while the enormous screens by Lucy Mackinnon invoking the rolling waves Gulf Coast are striking, their constant presence becomes distracting as the play progresses. Some actors seem to have trouble transversing aspects of the spare set, with the awkward placement of Serafina’s front door and a patch of sand at the foot of the stage proving particularly troublesome.
While it doesn’t feel like Cullman is trying to put on your typical Tennessee Williams production, his vision doesn’t quite cohere into a satisfying whole. Despite winning the Tony for Best Play in 1951, The Rose Tattoo still feels like one of Williams’ lesser works, missing the thunder and heat of his legendary ones. While the play’s runtime of two hours and 20 minutes flies by quickly and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves, the overall experience felt unfulfilling. Instead of feeling like you indulged in a satisfying multi-course meal, it comes off more like gorging on a plate of Italian cookies. B-