“The Rose Tattoo” is minor Tennessee Williams, but this bittersweet comedy from 1951 deserves to be seen. What it does not deserve is the pink-flamingos revival that opened Tuesday at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre, a presentation of the Roundabout Theatre Company.
John Waters’ influence on tacky lawn décor dominates Mark Wendland’s set design. Dozens of plastic pink flamingos prance motionlessly as waves in the Gulf of Mexico crash behind them on three mammoth cycloramas (projection design by Lucy Mackinnon). Barely suggested here is the humble home of Serafina Delle Rose, the devoted Sicilian-American widow who discovers too late that her dead husband had been a chronic philanderer. We see only a few tables and chairs, a door and a window, but there are more votive candles than you can find at St. Anthony’s in Padua. Clearly, someone is out to deconstruct Tennessee’s little, gently written “Tattoo.”
Then Marisa Tomei shows up in the role of Serafina. The neighbors say she’s “an animal” for wallowing in her grief, but Serafina screams back, “I am a woman!” Actually, she is neither. She’s more like Saraghina, the blowzy prostitute who services little boys on the beach in Fellini’s “8 ½.” When that big mop of ratted hair (wig design by Tom Watson) isn’t overwhelming Tomei’s head, the actress strokes her body and rolls her eyes in a routine lifted from Eddra Gale’s Saraghina in the classic 1963 film. Wendland’s set even gives Tomei buckets of sand to kick up.
What’s happening here? Has Tomei attempted to replicate Anna Magnani’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1955 screen version of “Tattoo” and overshot her goal? That may have been director Trip Cullman’s vision, because this revival is chockablock with outlandish performances. An exception is Ella Rubin as Serafina’s distraught teenage daughter, who is discovering love for the first time. Grossed out by her mother, which is more than understandable, Rubin brings a poignant kitchen-sink reality to the cartoon unspooling around her.
Wendland’s set suggests a deconstructed “Tattoo,” and it would have been nice if Tomei under Cullman’s direction had taken that visual clue and not only eschewed Magnani and Gale but dropped the exaggerated Sicilian accent (her English often unintelligible, her Italian always crystal clear) and the many Mamma Mia gestures.
Playing Serafina’s newfound love interest, Emun Elliott isn’t immune to trafficking in Italo-ethnic stereotypes. But his Alvaro is always intelligible, and he channels neither Eli Wallach (the original Alvaro) nor Burt Lancaster (the screen Alvaro). He instead disarms by finding a loopy balance between lusting for Serafina and really loving Serafina. His scenes with Tomei are this revival’s strongest (too bad that Alvaro doesn’t appear until act two); and it helps that she bags the Saraghina wig for a more normal hairdo shortly after the two characters meet. Cullman dilutes whatever chemistry Tomei and Elliott generate by turning the second act of “Tattoo” into a ribald “I Love Lucy.” Tomei awkwardly slips out of her girdle at one point. Worse is her using a wine bottle like a dildo.