Laced with humor and colorfully loopy characters and an ending – no spoiler – that is atypically upbeat, The Rose Tattoo is as close as Tennessee Williams comes to romantic comedy. The miscalibrated new Broadway production at American Airlines Theatre starring Marisa Tomei provides a telling reminder of the limited elasticity of comedy. Stretched too broadly and the whole business can warp. Stakes aren’t raised; they’re razed. As a result, poignance goes untapped in a 1951 award-winning play that’s more than two and a half hours of easy laughs.
So it goes in director Trip Cullman’s sitcom-y production for the Roundabout, first seen at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It amuses, but never creeps under the skin. Too bad, since the story, set along the American Gulf Coast, concerns a Sicilian woman desperately seeking to restore her soul and lust for living. There’s more than giggles in that. Besides missing the warmth of Williams’ story, the revival finds Tomei, the My Cousin Vinny Oscar winner and seasoned theater actress who can captivate on stage, giving an uncharacteristically slack, one-note performance. At times her lines are muddled under an Italian accent.
Tomei plays Serafina Delle Rose, a meaty role previously played on Broadway by Maureen Stapleton (twice) and Mercedes Ruehl, and on film by Anna Magnani. A dressmaker, Serafina sees what she wants to see, whether it’s about her husband’s job delivering produce (and contraband hidden underneath the fruit) or his faithfulness (she believes he’s true-blue). But a slinky blackjack dealer (Tina Benko, who puts her all into a Southern drawl) offers a wake-up call about his fidelity. After his death, Serafina creates a shrine around her husband’s ashes and essentially becomes a hermit. She expects her teenage daughter Rosa (Ella Rubin), who has eyes for Jack, a young sailor (Burke Swanson), to do the same. Serafina prays for a sign that it’s time to live again.
That message comes courtesy of the unrestrained and hunky Alvaro (an animated Emun Elliott), who, she says, “has her husband’s body and the head of a clown.” Alvaro also has her husband’s old job, delivering bananas. Williams, a playwright who always knew how to lay it on thick, isn’t subtle in this symbol-soaked work, but, suddenly, there are flashes of his writing that can touch the heart. “Everybody is nothing until you love them,” Rosa tells Jack. Probing deeper into Williams’ poetry could have gone a long way to help balance some of this revival’s overstated I Love Lucy-style slapstick, such as when Serafina is tangled up in her undergarments.
In addition to melodies in Williams’ language, this production periodically spices the atmosphere with Italian songs. Scenic designer Mark Wendland sets the scene with a hodgepodge of elements, including enormous panels for projections of waves, crisscrossing power and telephone lines overhead, and a few sticks of furniture in Serafina’s home. Looming large is an enormous flock of flamingos that cuts a wide pink line across the set. The birds, known for wading in the shallows, underscore that the production doesn’t go deep. That’s the thorn in this Rose.