“There is something wild in the air, no wind but everything’s moving,” says Assunta, who sells medicinal herbs and dispenses folk wisdom gratis in the opening scene of The Rose Tattoo.
“I don’t see nothing moving and neither do you,” Serafina Delle Rose retorts, calling the old woman’s bluff. Never mind, Assunta says, and by the way, check out this white powder made from dried goat’s blood I have on special today. “Drop a pinch of it in your husband’s coffee.” At dinner, she adds, conspiratorially, not at breakfast.
“My husband don’t need no powder!” Serafina assures her. Why, he’s a stud who drives a 10-ton truck for smugglers who hide their goods under his bananas and brings home so much money “it spills from his pockets!”
Tennessee Williams was in a happy place when he wrote The Rose Tattoo, after The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire had brought him fame and money. This new play was a departure, an elemental celebration of lust and love drafted more in the form of an opéra comique than the wounded, bruising dramas that had come before.
“The mark of the creative writer is the ability he has of escaping from a formula and becoming the master of his own universe,” Brooks Atkinson wrote, championing the play in The New York Times. Williams had recently spent an idyll in Sicily, clearly with salutary results, the critic noted. “Some of us were beginning to fear that Mr. Williams’ literary acquaintance was confined to the frail, pallid flowers of passion who succumbed to various neuroses in his earlier plays.”
That fate would seem to be Serafina’s as well, given her husband’s off-stage death as the play has barely gotten underway and the miscarriage that ensues. Serafina is left to raise their 12-year-old daughter Rosa, and carve out her living as a seamstress in the cloister of their Gulf Coast shack, a glittering, folksy shrine to the Virgin Mary.
Instead, Serafina is exuberant even in her mourning. And when another trucker appears three years later and Rosa is old enough to seek love on her own, that spirit spills out like so much unleashed passion, a furious life force as she makes up for lost time faithful to a man who, in the end, was unworthy of her.
Trip Cullman’s fizzy revival for the Roundabout Theatre Company asserts the comique aspects of the play over the operatic. The opening scene, which features many mammas calling their rambunctious children home for supper, is dressed with a chorus line of pink flamingos (they don’t actually kick; they’re plastic). And he has struck comedic gold with his two stars: Marisa Tomei as Serafina and, in his Broadway debut, Scottish actor Emun Elliott (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as Alvaro Mangiacavallo, the travelling trucker who reawakens Serafina’s lust for life.
Tomei is bewitching as a woman who tries and fails to bury her sorrow. Even as Serafina has become housebound, taking in her sewing and hiding her daughter’s clothes so she can’t go out, she jousts with the locals, giving as good as she gets. Tomei is such a physical comedian that her Serafina risks becoming a vaudeville turn, though it never does, so sweet is her connection to this woman’s humanity, her pride and her need for resurrection. Still, watch her struggle with a recalcitrant girdle, or all but strip a gentleman caller of his shirt, and any need to intellectualize the approach falls away.
Elliott lays it on thick as marinara as the wheedling Alvaro, who is prone to easy tears (“I got three dependents!” he whines at the prospect of losing his job) and an obvious con (he gets a rose tattoo as a ticket to this widow’s bed) but smart enough to see that Serafina offers him a kind of redemption.
There are solid contributions from Ella Rubin as daughter Rosa, Burke Swanson as her suitor, Carolyn Mignini as Assunta, and Tina Benko as the prideful mistress everyone but Serafina apparently knew about.
And yet the production doesn’t hold together, for several reasons. Despite the excellent projections of coastal disturbances cast by Lucy Mackinnon, and fine lighting by Ben Stanton, Mark Wendland’s set is a constant distraction. No sooner have we figured out the floorplan of Serafina’s home than actors pass through walls we thought were there and characters make reference to areas we don’t see.
More significantly, the show lacks a unity of tone, possibly the inevitable consequence of a script that seems hopelessly dated even if we transport ourselves back to its 1950s milieu. Absent the wrenching lyricism that distinguishes his characters from the naturalism of his contemporaries, Williams here edges into condescension. He would later move beyond caricature, but in The Rose Tattoo, we’re stuck in a mawkish backwater.