The Rose Tattoo
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Marisa Tomei comes to grief in an unusual 1951 dramedy by Tennessee Williams.
Broadway review by Adam Feldman
“We are Sicilians!” announces Serafina Delle Rose (Marisa Tomei) to the young man who has come to court her teenage daughter. “We are not cold-blooded.” That’s putting it mildly. Tennessee Williams’s 1951 oddity The Rose Tattoo is set in a community of Italian immigrants on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, and their passion runneth over. A dressmaker of peasant stock, Serafina pours her soul into the worship of two idols: the Virgin Mary, to whom she maintains a candlelit household shrine, and her virile husband, Rosario, whose uncle was a baron in the old country but who now drives a truck for the local mob. Her lust is religious. “A woman must not have a heart that is too big to swallow!” warns her confidante, Assunta (Carolyn Mignini), the local fattucchiera—a benign sort of witch, in contrast to la Strega (the flavorful Constance Shulman), a grotesque crone who owns a goat and rails against immigrants (“More of them coming over on boats all the time”). What Assunta knows—what everyone knows except Serafina—is that Rosario has been stepping out with an icy blonde blackjack dealer. A brutal wreck and reckoning are just down the road.
Serafina’s blissful naiveté is punished early: Within 20 minutes or so, she has suffered a miscarriage and joined the ranks of the black-clad widows who haunt the stage and emerge from time to time to sing in Italian. The mood is operatic, and so is Serafina’s mourning: She cuts herself off from the world, cherishing her late husband’s remains and vowing never to love again. But Williams has other ideas. The Rose Tattoo is his version of The Winter’s Tale: The nearly relentless sorrow of the play’s first half gives way, after intermission, to a phoenix-like rebirth from Rosario’s ashes—in the goofily appealing form of one Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Emun Elliott, charming as hell), a down-on-his-luck banana-truck driver who matches her in ardor.
The Rose Tattoo gets much more pleasurable as it opens into bloom. Tomei is not ideally cast as Serafina—her lightness works against her—and the first act is thick with Italian accents and gesticulation. (You half expect someone to step forward and say, “Mama mia, that’s a spicy drama!”) Trip Cullman’s staging seems to lean into the potential for camp; the back half of Mark Wendland’s abstract set is crowded with dozens of lawn-ornament pink flamingos, and Tina Benko, as Rosario’s mistress, looks and acts like a human pair of scissors. But Tomei’s great talent for romantic comedy clicks into place in her flirtation with Elliott. Although the tone of the play and production waver too much to leave a permament impression, The Rose Tattoo has an interesting position in the Williams canon. There is no shortage, in his plays, of lustful, delusional women who fall for attractive younger men. But rarely do they have, as here, even the hope of a happy ending.
American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Trip Cullman. With Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.