Trip Cullman’s production of The Rose Tattoo at the Roundabout Theatre combines two beloved American icons: Tennessee Williams and Marisa Tomei. The pairing is full of creative promise.
Williams is always in danger of being relegated to a cliché corner of antiquated and stereotypical Southern romance. That is largely the product of some light censorship and highly selective producing of his plays which belies his darker, more experimental edge. The challenge—and genius—of a Williams play exists in a fine balance of sometimes opposing tonalities. Cullman’s production leans, however, too heavily into the play’s comedy and cultural caricature, overwhelming the harsher, uglier human tragedy that quietly underpins it.
Tomei is an intelligent and lively actor and she is well matched by the rest of the cast. Tomei embodies the very Williamsian heroine, Serafina Delle Rose, a Sicilian seamstress living “somewhere along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile,” who is as obsessively devoted to her handsome rose-tattooed husband as she is to the Virgin Mary. When he is killed, she falls to pieces, descending into a slovenly state that “disgusts” her Americanized daughter, Rosa (Ella Rubin, doing her best with the ingénue part), especially when viewed through the eyes of others, such as prim schoolteacher Miss Yorke (Cassie Beck, turning out an excellent cameo) and Rosa’s love interest Billy (Jacob Micahel Laval, charmingly goofy).
Potential scandal arrives in the form of Alvaro Mangiacavallo, who bears an uncanny, though more clownish, resemblance to Serafina’s dead husband. Emun Elliott as Alvaro has a ball with Tomei in their absurd love scenes and they have good chemistry.
Cullman’s directorial hand is evident, pushing the cast as a whole towards high energy, almost farcical comedy. All are adept at this, pulling off well-timed punchlines (some built into the script but others manipulated out of it) and physical gags with expertise (Tomei and Elliott demonstrate some especially elastic facial expressions and full body reacting).
The comedy is essential, but here it too often loses nuance, as well as the opportunity to provoke more complicated feelings from the audience. What was initially enjoyable became frustrating as the play drew into the second half. Rather than interweaving tragedy and comedy, this production flips disjointedly between the two.
More troublingly, the slapstick tone of the comedy highlights the ethnic stereotyping of the play (even with an “Italian Dramaturg,” Marco Calvani, credited in the program). Anyone who knows and loves Tomei from the nineties film My Cousin Vinny understands that she can successfully play to a type without reducing the human behind it. It is not that Tomei herself seems unaware of the pathos threaded throughout Serafina’s passion, but too much of the production’s focus goes to expressive hand waving and heavy accents, preventing the specificity of her obsessive love and superstition to come through.
My discomfort at the Sicilian stereotyping was amplified by the regrettable decision to cast the only Black adult actors as Williams’ “clowns,” Flora and Bessie. The race of the two women is not specified in the script. The characters are meant to be played as low-class, crass women. Portia and Paige Gilbert are fine actors but the production does not justify this casting choice in a production that is already toying with ethnic stereotyping.
Cullman and the designers have grasped that atmosphere is more important than concrete representation in a Williams play. Lucy Mackinnon’s projected waves surround Mark Wendlend’s set, which is skeletal but not sparse. Serafina’s house is conveyed only by key furniture elements and a romantically rustic shuttered window. Her collection of Catholic paraphernalia and devotional candles provide a warm, decorative glow, which is enhanced by the soft romantic lighting by Ben Stanton that elegantly changes with the time of day. Sand surrounding the central stage further adds to the coastal setting though it is barely visible. All of this is a visual pleasure.
But then there are the flamingos. Fake pink flamingos fill the entire back space to no discernable purpose. True, pink is a thematic color and the Sicilian women are frequently compared to screaming or chattering birds in the script, but I doubt flamingos are what Williams had in mind. Visually striking, but heavily endowed with their own contemporary camp connotations, they work against the script and other aesthetic choices of the production.
In addition, Cullman only nods to Williams’s thematic obsessions: his love and fascination with religious ritual and his sense of the body and sexuality as something simultaneously divine and grotesque. Here, the Virgin Mary is relegated to an anonymously small statue downstage. Her influence on Serafina is conveyed largely as another silly Sicilian superstition, not a critical element of the character and her identity. Cullman and sound designer Fitz Patton do recognize the importance of music to the play, though for me, the renditions of the songs were overmiked and too pop song smooth and lacking folk or religious authenticity.
It is rewarding to see a professional production of one of Williams’s lesser-known works. There is a lot to enjoy in the ability of the performers and production team, but also the sense that the depths have not quite been plumbed. This Rose Tattoo provides laughter and some romance, but frustratingly sweeps over the lingering, destabilizing sense of life, death, and sex as sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, joyous and painful, and maybe a little foolish—like a rose tattoo.