Serafina Delle Rose, the tempestuous Sicilian firestorm raging at the heart of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, has to be one of the theatre’s most challenging roles. Just watch the usually wonderful Marisa Tomei put up a losing struggle with her in the Roundabout revival of this 1951 play (originally seen at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2016), directed by Trip Cullman. Try as she might, Tomei is unable to capture the character’s comedy and pathos, or the frustrating conflict between the demands of her Dionysian sexuality and religious sanctity.
Magnani, however, was afraid to tackle a Broadway play in English—even with lots of Italian phrases sprinkled throughout—so the role went to Maureen Stapleton, a 25-year-old of Irish Catholic extraction from Troy, NY. To see why Williams wanted Magnani, take a gander at her on YouTube in the 1955 film version (costarring a miscast Burt Lancaster), even if you see only this trailer, in which she says not a word.
Stapleton was considered physically wrong for Serafina—“They even dirtied her face and found her some funny clothes,” wrote Williams’s brother, Dakin, and Shepard Mead in their biography)—a woman who takes pride in never having missed a night of sex with her late, banana-truck driver husband, racking up 4,380 times before he died in a crash. Nevertheless, she made the role her own, and became a star.
Eli Wallach played Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Mr. Eat-a-Horse), the randy banana-truck driver who becomes the new love in Serafina’s life after the death of her husband, Rosario, also a banana-truck driver.
In 1966, Stapleton played the role again, in a City Center revival. Curious as to what her iconic performance might have been like, I listened—script in hand—to the entire Caedmon recording of the production and was greatly disappointed to hear Stapleton give a largely one-note performance, with lots of raspy yelling, and very little human believability. She also avoided an Italian accent, despite Serafina, a dressmaker, being an immigrant of peasant stock.
In fact, the entire production (including a surprisingly colorless job by the young Christopher Walken as Jack Hunter, the sailor boyfriend of Serafina’s daughter, Rosa) sounds phony. Harry Guardino as Mangiacavallo, however, also accent-less, gives an otherwise naturalistic performance, in a New York, Italian-American way. Meanwhile, Dino Terranova, an Italian actor, has a perfect accent as the fiery Father de Leo, a role inexplicably cut from the present production, depriving the play of the argument regarding the Church’s stance against cremation.
Father de Leo is not the only character removed. You'll also look in look in vain for the goat seen in previous New York stagings, as well as the dressmaker's dummies that form such an important part of the script's desired imagery.
The only other New York revival of The Rose Tattoo was at Broadway’s Circle in the Square in 1995, with Mercedes Ruehl as Serafina and Anthony LaPaglia as Alvaro. Her performance was warmly received, although she used an accent of which Ben Brantley wrote: “who cares if her accent is a tad too close to Gilda Radner's Roseanne Rosannadana to be entirely credible?”
Well, with regard to Marisa Tomei’s accent, I care, since (like that of her costar, Scottish actor Emun Elliott), it’s disturbingly artificial, especially when combined with every stereotypical Italian gesture and bodily inflection you can think of. Tomei, 54 and looking nearly as youthful as when she blew us away 27 years ago in My Cousin Vinny, may be of Italian descent but she’s simply miscast as the volcanic Serafina. Even with the assistance of Charlotte Fleck, one of our foremost dialect coaches, not one actor sounds authentically Italian. Tomei introduces so many rolling r’s that there are none left for her colleagues to employ.
Physically, she’s petite and trim in a role whose lines suggest a bit more cheese on her pizza. In one notable scene, she prepares for a date with Alvaro by putting on a girdle (before trying, with farcical behavior, to get it off). Marisa Tomei needs a girdle the way Superman needs more muscles. As for her acting, forced to pound away at the character’s already near-operatic outbursts, she’s like a cat trying to play a lion.
The same is true of almost everything else in Cullman’s overwrought production, which is as ineffably uninvolving as what I felt when listening to the 1966 revival. Williams’s play, which won him his only Tony, is a Rabelaisian romantic comedy with what, in 1951, must have seemed daringly frank mentions of sexual activity, aphrodisiacs, virginity, breasts, condoms, and nudity, not to mention bits of childish, phallic business. Most of this now seems both puerile and sophomoric. Critic George Jean Nathan, in his review of the 1951 staging, put Williams in the company of the "genitalmen," as he called sex-obsessed playwrights.
On the other hand, The Rose Tattoo was once so controversial that religious officials in Ireland and Rhodesia shut the play down. It’s not enough for Cullman, however, that the play contains all this stuff. In several instances he gilds the lily by, for example, having Serafina underline her dialogue with lazzi reminiscent of too many Shakespearean directors who feel they must show us with gestures how dirty the lines are meant to be.
Here is Nathan’s succinct, literal summation of the plot, from his review of the original production:
Williams’ show . . . is about a Sicilian-American widow whose fond memory of her spouse gets such a severe jolt when she learns he cavorted with another woman that, though she had been spending the days since his death praying that both she and her young daughter would not fall under the concupiscent spell of wicked males, she forthwith picks up a truck-driver who looks like her late husband and, after a period of coy resistance, rapturously bestows her favors upon him. In the meantime, the daughter busies herself trying to persuade a young sailor to accept her favors in turn. The sailor, however, has promised his mother that he will abstain from any such thing, whereupon the truck-driver, who has different ideas, makes a bee-line for the girl, which so enrages the mother that she bids him begone forever and tells the daughter she is free to give herself to the sailor.
It’s true that Williams was after a bighearted mixture of comedy, drama, and Italian opera-like exaggeration, with infusions of his typical poetic lyricism. Still, making a theatrical smoothie from such ingredients is easier imagined than accomplished.
Designer Mark Wendland aims for the lyrical in his practically wall-less set, showing a few pieces of the interior of Serafina’s shabby home, combined with a sandy exterior, and a runway (like a kabuki hanamichi) extending from center to a passageway beneath a stage right balcony, thus forcing entering and exiting actors to bend low to avoid hitting their heads. The lack of walls, increasingly common in revivals of plays usually seen with more or less solid interiors, only serves to create confusion as to which room characters are in, or whether they're inside or outside.
At the rear of the set, over which looms a net of telephone pole wires, stand dozens of lawn-style, pink flamingoes, with a back wall on which Lucy McKinnon’s projections provide an endless loop of Gulf Coast waves crashing. The image is odd, since the waters on that part of the Gulf Coast are almost always wave-less. Ben Stanton’s lovely lighting captures the shifting moods appropriately, but the production itself is simply too broad and too comically overstated to match these subtleties.
A surprising amount of original, Italian-inflected music, composed by sound designer Fitz Patton, is sung by the black-garbed, local townswomen, serving as a sort of disapproving chorus to the more liberally dressed Serafina (costumes by Clint Ramos), who often wears little more than a slip. While it enhances the play’s stylistic ambitions, it’s not enough to cover its loose structure, awkward exposition, inflated dialogue, comic flatness, and unpersuasive performances.
Elliott’s Mangiacavallo (who pronounces Pass Christian—where I have family—correctly, unlike Guardino on the recording) is vibrantly present but pushes the comedy too hard. Tina Benko, always so reliable, overdoes the glamorous Estelle, Rosario’s lover. Greg Hildreth, though, does a good job in the small role of the nasty Salesman. None of the others in the large supporting cast is distinctive enough to warrant comment.
There’s also a bit of distracting, colorblind casting that makes no sense for a Gulf Coast community at the time this play is set. Among other things, having black floozies lording it over a white woman, and calling Italian Americans wops, may give some viewers an ironic, sociopolitical frisson, but it’s so anachronistic it takes us out of the play. (It’s interesting to note, in this context, that Cicely Tyson played Serafina in a 1979 revival at the Berkshire Theater Festival, which the critics panned, but without reference to her race.)
In their biography of Williams, Dakin Williams and Shepard Mead wrote:
The play is full of roses. Serafina’s husband was named Rosario, her daughter Rosa, and their last name was Della [sic] Rose. Her husband wore his tattoo of a rose on his chest and so . . . did Mangiacavallo. Rosario’s hair had always been perfumed with oil of roses, and so was Mangiacavallo’s. There is a rose on a fan, a rose-colored silk shirt and roses are growing by the house. It is a celebration of Tennessee’s almost mystic attraction to the rose image, growing partly from the women he loved most, Old Grand and his sister.
My plus-one for The Rose Tattoo was a friend called Rose, whose last name, believe it or not, also includes the syllable "rose." Although feeling much like me, she sat her ground for both acts of this two-and-a-half-hour production, unlike a bunch of people right in front of us who did not. Shakespeare may have said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but I suspect those early departures would not have agreed.
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through December 8