The Rose Tattoo
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
In a Roundabout Theatre Company revival at the American Airlines Theatre, The Rose Tattoo stands out in the Tennessee Williams anthology, a bawdy slapstick comedy, reveling in sexual farce and celebrating the virility of life. Serafina delle Rose is a flamboyant Sicilian immigrant living on the Gulf Coast in 1950, a woman driven to hysteria by the death of her husband, Rosario, only to find it later in another man in whom she glimpses many of her late husband’s attributes.
This rejoicing of love by Williams was inspired by his own great love, Frank Merlo, a Sicilian-American, with whom he spent some of his happiest years, traveling in Italy and living in New York and Key West. Yet, we also find the usual tragic elements weaving through Williams’ other plays.
Directed by Trip Cullman (Choir Boy, Lobby Hero), the story of Serafina (Marisa Tomei) begins in her cluttered cottage near the sea with numerous pink flamingoes lining the shore, the sound of breaking waves and, in the distance, cars and trucks on the highway. Mark Wendland’s set shows two small rooms facing the sea and between the rooms, an ornate shrine with a prie-dieu and votives lighting a Madonna statue dressed in blue with a gold crown.
Serafina, a seamstress, raising her 15-year-old defiant daughter, Rosa (Ella Rubin in a capable Broadway debut), is eagerly waiting for her macho husband, Rosario. He is a trucker, transporting bananas and, Serafina reveals, “Whatever it is that the Brothers Romano want hauled out of the state, he hauls it for them, underneath the bananas.” As she waits for Rosario, she is almost quivering with sexual excitement, lending the play a Dionysian sensation boosted by her certainty that she is pregnant.
Instead of a reunion, Serafina learns that Rosario has died in a highway crash. She is devastated, collapses, miscarries and withdraws into frowzy disorganization, drinking heavily and intermittently falling to her knees at the shrine to pray for a “sign” that life will get better.
She puts Rosario’s ashes in an urn on a shelf of gaudy knickknacks. She proclaims that her husband was royalty, and her neighbors tease her as “Baronessa,” an overblown poseur, but hers is a modest life. She yells at the neighborhood children (Alexander Bello, Isabella Iannelli, Jacob Michael Laval) racing across the stage and derides any help from the women who roam around the stage like a black Italian mourning chorus. (Original music is supplied by Jason Michael Webb and Fitz Patton.)
In the three years of Act I, daughter Rosa meets and falls in love with a naïve young sailor, Jack (Burke Swanson), and her mother falls into even deeper despair, hopelessly remembering the nights of vigorous sex with Rosario. To protect her daughter, she forces Jack to kneel before the Madonna and promise to respect Rosa’s innocence. Meanwhile, Serafina learns that her own late husband, who she believed was faithful to her, had been having an affair with Estelle (Tina Benko), a local blackjack dealer. She is humiliated to learn that everyone in the town knew about the affair except her.
In Act II, Serafina meets a trucker (also hauling bananas), Alvaro Mangiacavallo, played by Emun Elliott. Young and full of life, he falls for the lusty Serafina and here the play picks up, the confusion of community life stepping aside for the chemical combustion of Alvaro and Serafina. Alvaro, whose name means “eat a horse” in Italian, has three dependents, his mother, sister and his sexual longing. Although Elliott fails with his faux-Italian accent, he brings an affable vibrancy to Alvaro and the promise of a lusty lover to Serafina.
Viewers must step away from Williams’ description of the play’s heroine to accept the delicate Tomei’s portrayal of Serafina. Remember it was the great Anna Magnani, sturdy and fiery, who defined the role in the Oscar-winning film. Tomei, however, has a keen sense of comedy and is hilarious when she proves Serafina’s vanity wiggling out of a tight girdle. Just as convincing is her furious temper when, mistakenly angry at Alvaro, she throws him out of the house. Still, Tennessee Williams’ passions move swiftly and the next day, when Serafina hears Alvaro’s voice calling to her, she runs to him, shouting, “Vengo, vengo, amore!”
The broad comedy, almost operatic, defines the force of the play even when it comes close to overwhelming the inherent poignancy of these characters.
The Rose Tattoo
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 - West 42th Street. NYC
Previews: Sept.19, 2019. Opening: Oct. 15, 2019. Closing: Nov. 8, 2019
Running Time: Two hours, 25 min. No intermission.
Cast: Cassie Beck, Alexander Bello, Tina Benko, Andréa Burns, Susan Cella, Emun Elliott, Paige Gilbert, Greg Hildreth, Isabella Iannelli, Jacob Michael Laval, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Carolyn Mignini, Portia, Ella Rubin, Jennifer Sánchez, Constance Shulman, Burke Swanson and Marisa Tomei.
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Directed: Trip Cullman
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors, October 2019
This review also appears in TotalTheater.com