Imagine you’re invited to some netherworld, Southern Gothic-themed cocktail party peopled with Tennessee Williams heroines. There’s Amanda Wingfield and Blanche DuBois competing for pity with wilted stories of glory days, Maggie the Cat in her slip, stalking waiters, and lusty Maxine walking a leashed iguana and a cabana boy or two. Even among this look-at-me bunch, The Rose Tattoo‘s Serafina Delle Rose would be a spectacle, the brash, loud and vulgar center of attention outtalking everyone else, bragging about her long-dead husband’s bedroom talents, how the two got those colored lights going like even Stanley Kowalski would envy.
Now imagine Serafina portrayed by Marisa Tomei in prodigious Cousin Vinny Oscar-getting mode, and you’ll maybe get a sense of director Trip Cullman’s tonally raucous production of The Rose Tattoo, opening on Broadway tonight in a Roundabout Theatre Company presentation at American Airlines Theatre.
Presented to an enthusiastic reception at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2016, the production arrives on Broadway with director and star intact, and both seem to have fine-tuned their outsized approaches to this undersized Williams offering (undersized, at least, among the playwright’s run of golden-age classics from 1944’s The Glass Menagerie through ’61’s The Night of the Iguana; The Rose Tattoo won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1951).
Though the play’s central role of the Sicilian-American Serafina was originated by Maureen Stapleton, it’s most closely associated with the actress Anna Magnani, who brought an earthy, voluptuous characterization to the 1955 film version.
What Tomei doesn’t carry in the physical heft of her forerunners, she makes up for with a broad, full-tilt, near-operatic approach that works well in some scenes (the grief-shot ones, particularly) and less so in others (the libidinous ones – or the more libidinous ones – wherein she plays the sex-starved widow’s attraction to Tattoo’s semi-gentleman caller with the sort of eyes-popped, breathless stumbling that Carol Burnett used when Lyle Waggoner entered a sketch).
Granted, Emun Elliott’s Alvaro Mangiacavallo – the equally lonely, equally Italian banana-hauling truck driver who comes courting – really is goofy-charming, his build as solid as Williams repeatedly tells us, his face certainly more handsome than the big-eared clown jokes tossed his way would have us believe.
The last Broadway saw of these characters was in 1995’s Circle in the Square staging, with Anthony LaPaglia and Mercedes Ruehl bringing a matching lonelyhearts, Marty-style naturalism to the duet.
Tomei and Elliott bring a similar equality to the dance, riffing off one another, each tracing the other’s highs, lows, whispers and screams (more of the latter), with Elliott’s Alvaro taking a slight edge in the sobbing department. Both dive deep into the accent pool, which you can take as operatic or comic as you choose, though the comic interpretation gets you dangerously close to that old “spicy meatball-a” commercial.
Taking place in 1950 in, as the production notes state, a Gulf Coast village somewhere between New Orleans and Mobile, Cullman’s staging plays out on Mark Wendland’s sand-coated set somewhere between realism (that sand, Serafina’s humble, sincere votive-candle shrine to the Virgin) and whimsy (dozens of plastic pink flamingos stand silhouetted against Lucy Mackinnon’s very lovely projections of ever-crashing ocean waves; so when will the Tony Awards catch up to Broadway with a specific award for projection design?)
Even with all that surf and pink plastic turf threatening to (literally) upstage, this cast doesn’t give up so much as a square inch of beach or audience attention, and not just the energetic leads. Carolyn Mignini’s Assunta, Serafina’s older, sometimes wiser friend, is all compassion and kindness, except when she isn’t.
As Serafina’s rebellious, angry teenage daughter Rosa, Ella Rubin at least comes by her volume honestly. A fittingly sweet and dewey eyed Burke Swanson somehow holds his own as Jack, the handsome, well-intentioned young sailor who can’t help falling in love with the too-young Rosa.
Other performances can seem weighted with directorial flash. Constance Shulman is weirdly attired in some sort of East Village street person get-up as the maybe witchy, definitely racist old Strega, and Tina Benko’s Estelle Hohengarten (did the 20th Century have a better namer than Williams?) provides some comic relief as the haughty Other Woman, though maybe there was a less stilted way of conveying smugness than a walk stiffer than a fake flamingo’s wire legs. Still, Benko makes such effective use of her brief time onstage that her comeuppance, when it comes, stings.
As for the fates of the rest, well, romantic comedy wasn’t exactly Williams’ wheelhouse. He plays by its rules sure enough, even giving Serafina and Alvaro a shot at happiness rare in his universe, but all the effort feels like, well, effort, febrile and verbose and matched shout for shout, sob for sob by a production that could have used a little of the restraint Cullman showed with Choir Boy or Lobby Hero. If happily ever after is better than a shattered glass unicorn or getting carted off to the neighborhood loony bin, it probably shouldn’t feel less fun.
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