Tennessee Williams dedicated "The Rose Tattoo" to his lover, "in return for Sicily." The exchange seems just, for the play overflows with the energy, the heat and the earthy humor of Sicily. Robert Falls' production captures the play's full-throated embrace of life with operatic joy and intensity.
The play is set in a Gulf Coast town in which lives a colony of Sicilians, many of whom still speak Italian and believe Old World superstitions. The play begins with the lusty Serafina Delle Rose waiting for her husband, a truck driver about to gain independence from the gangsters for whom he delivers drugs under tons of bananas. They shoot him, and for years Serafina is content to nurse the memories of her late husband's fiery love.
Three years into her widowhood, another truck driver stumbles into the house where she has remained secluded. Though he is a bumbler, he has, she is astonished to see, "my husband's body with the head of a clown." Their courtship is expectedly stormy, but eventually she accepts him, and in so doing she is even able to let her daughter Rosa, whom she has shielded from life, set out on her own equally torturous road to love.
There is dark, even cruel humor in much of Williams, but here it's warm and life-affirming, and the production captures it beautifully.
The glorious Mercedes Ruehl has no trouble projecting Serafina's sensuality, her passion or her temper. She does not yet have a certain poignancy in the repeated gesture of a graduation gift she is unable to give her daughter, but everything else about Ruehl's Serafina is magnificent. It is a performance I could see again and again.
Anthony LaPaglia is a marvelous foil for her as her woebegone lover. He has the Sicilian swagger but also a loser's sweetness. There is beautiful work by Cara Buono as Rosa, Dylan Chalfy as Rosa's nervous boyfriend, and Antonia Rey, Deborah Jolly and Ellen Tobie in smaller parts.
Santo Loquasto, who gave us provincial Russia so resplendently in last week's "A Month in the Country," gives us a transplanted Sicily with artful simplicity here. Catherine Zuber's costumes give the humor poetry. All in all, the production is a triumph.
Those of us who have always suspected that "The Rose Tattoo" was one day destined to take more than the mere supporting role usually allotted it in the canon of Tennessee Williams plays, are this morning entitled to feel pleased with themselves and their judgment.
Last night it was given a lustily brilliant new production at the Circle in the Square Theater, with Mercedes Ruehl particularly dazzling as that Sicilian Earth Mother, Serafina and Williams' life-assertive tragicomedy (with the accent on the comedy) most joyfully reasserted itself.
The play has its share of Williams' symbols - roses, ashes and even a live goat - and perhaps more than its share of his disconcertingly Sean O'Casey habit (perhaps they both learned it from Shakespeare) of casually mixing ribald laughter with quite sticky sentiment.
But its characters are real and wonderfully likeable and its story has an operatic sweep. Indeed it's exactly like one of those heavy-breathing and melodramatic verismo Italian operas, given a naughtily comic spin.
Serafina's husband - a truck driver and dope peddler - is killed in a suspicious road crash. She mourns her lost love, and preserves his ashes like a holy relic.
Some years later, unkind neighbors hint that the lost hero may not have been the paragon of fidelity his widow imagines. Her life unravels - and helping in the unraveling is another truck driver who blunders into her home, Alvaro Mangiacavallo. As Serafina notes, with grim irony, he has the body of her husband "but the head of a clown."
As counterpoint to this odd alliance, is Serafina's 15 year-old daughter, Rosa, and her love for a young sailor. Serafina so disapproves of this friendship, she forces the embarrassed young man to swear, on a statuette of the Holy Virgin, no less, that he will not violate Rosa's chastity.
The charms of this play are timeless. Throughout there are the enduring realities of pain, the demands of life and love, and the crazy, often discomforting humor sparked by the human condition. Williams runs the gamut, like a Neapolitan street musician anxious to please yet willing to touch unexpected corners of our heart.
The direction by Robert Falls is exquisitely thoughtful, detailed and yet fluent, Catherine Zuber's costumes look spot-on appropriate, while Santo Loquasto's cleverly stylish setting makes shrewd use of the theater's awkward space.
Any actress playing Serafina has to run the classic gauntlet of the past, in this case comparison with, Maureen Stapleton, who created the role in 1951 and then played it again at City Center in 1966, and, of course, with the volcanic Anna Magnani, who starred in the movie version with none other than Burt Lancaster.
Happily Ruehl makes, as it were, her own ruehls, and this wonderfully passionate yet abrasively comic Serafina is a genuine creation and one of the great performances of the season. She moves like an embattled cockatoo, as her accented voice swoops from the strident to world weary.
Virtually as good, admirably surviving on the same stage, is Anthony LaPaglia's richly grotesque Alavaro, and Cara Buono and Dylan Chalfy prove sweet yet spirited as the lovers in innocence.
Circle in the Square has a long track record with Tennessee Williams, and here they could not be more on track. Bewitching - or, if you like, strega time!
The spumante wine that is brought out to inaugurate one of the funniest seductions in theater history isn't the only thing bubbling in the revival of "The Rose Tattoo" that opened last night at the Circle in the Square Theater.
Led by that seeming embodiment of solar energy known as Mercedes Ruehl, this production finds a giddy, disarmingly sweet effervescence in Tennessee Williams's tale of the sexual salvation of a Sicilian widow. And as directed by Robert Falls, the play has an earthy eroticism leavened by a sense of lightheaded, improbable innocence that turns the evening into an intoxicating fairy tale for grown-ups that matches Williams's own description of the play as a "celebration of the inebriate god."
"The Rose Tattoo" is singular in the Williams canon. While its theme of the self-deluding woman versus the man who is Id incarnate abounds in the writer's work, the clash typically ends in disaster: you know, castration, arson, nervous breakdowns.
But after the darker "Streetcar Named Desire" and "Summer and Smoke," Williams decided to suspend his romantic fatalism. And in "Tattoo," first staged in New York in 1951 in the production that made Maureen Stapleton a star, he for once allowed passion to redeem rather than destroy. The play is, in a sense, the flip side of "Streetcar," with the Stanley and Blanche figures turned into equally matched peers of comparable psychic (and for that matter, physical) strength.
Most people know "Tattoo" from the 1955 film version, which starred the magnificent, defiantly unglamorous Anna Magnani, for whom the role of Serafina was originally written. The actress's fiercely naturalistic presence, underscored by the movie's gritty black-and-white location photography, gave the film a neo-realist aura. And the fact that its subject matter was, frankly and unabashedly, the female libido tends to make people think of it as a sweaty slice of life.
In fact, the play is as poetic and wistful a work as Williams ever composed, as much of a pipe dream in its way as "The Glass Menagerie." It is also willfully simple-minded in its laborious symbolic structure and its optimistic view of carnal love as a cure-all. And to present it today as straightforward kitchen-sink theater would make audiences laugh for all the wrong reasons.
The great strength of Mr. Falls's production is its rendering of "Tattoo" as an airy erotic fable that gives equal due to the work's broad comedy, its organically emotional depths and its more artificial lyricism. Accordingly, Santo Loquasto's charming rose-colored valentine of a set and John Kilgore's antic use of brazenly sentimental music turn the play's location, an immigrant town on the Gulf Coast, into a dreamy, slightly surreal neverland of desire.
That land is governed with flash and assurance by Ms. Ruehl as Serafina, the stormy Sicilian seamstress who sequesters herself from life in a haze of memories of her late husband's sexual prowess. Magnani may forever own this part, but while Ms. Ruehl has it out on loan you should be able to forget her predecessor.
Magnani's Serafina was indeed, as comparisons at the time had it, a Vesuvius, given to volcanic eruptions but as seemingly invincible as a mountain. Ms. Ruehl is closer to a rushing river: also a force of nature, but more fluid, kinetic and easily diverted.
While she finds the humor in Serafina's imperiousness (watch what she does with the interrogation of her daughter's suitor), she also brings to the part a childish spontaneity that is winningly at odds with its forbidding matronly side. Her face can go instantly from contorted belligerence to an achingly vulnerable openness that makes her final transformation inevitable.
And who cares if her accent is a tad too close to Gilda Radner's Roseanne Rosannadana to be entirely credible? As Kenneth Tynan observed, "Tattoo" is "the product of a mind vitally infected with the rhythms of human speech." And Ms. Ruehl hammers home those rhythms with the reflexive precision of a veteran carpenter. She finds the poetic weight in key repeated words like "heart" and "facts," and in her bizarrely poignant imitation of a ticking watch, without ever losing her visceral connection to the character.
The entire work, though, is infused with musical cadences that Mr. Falls usually makes the most of. Irene Selznick, the original producer of "Streetcar," rejected "Tattoo" because she felt it was more like opera than like a play. And it is indeed like an opera buffa, with its soaring arias, spiky recitatives and a chorus of chattering villagers, who are appropriately staged with an almost ritualistic formality in this production.
There are also, of course, duets: the lyric, slightly sappy exchanges between Serafina's teen-age daughter, Rosa, an the callow sailor who is courting her (charmingly played by Cara Buono and Dylan Chalfy), and the contrastingly knotty, more combustible dialogues of Serafina and Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Anthony LaPaglia), the virile, amiably dim witted truck driver who delivers the widow from abstinence.
In the movie, Alvaro was played, with embarrassing strain, by a miscast Burt Lancaster, and Magnani had to work overtime to make their scenes together fly. This version faces no such problems. As this buffoon with the soul of a bard, Mr. LaPaglia displays a fiery energy and sense of timing that easily matches, and occasionally surpasses, Ms. Ruehl's. They seem genuinely made for each other by sheer force of metabolism, and their erotic wrestling match becomes, as it should, the play's triumphant comic center.
A few scenes go soft in the wrong places. The choicest example of verbal foreplay in American theater -- when Serafina says to Alvaro, "And now we can go on with our conversation" -- is thrown away here. The supporting cast members have moments suggesting the self-consciousness of high school productions (although Philip LeStrange is a scene stealer in the small role of a traveling salesman). And I could have done without Mr. LaPaglia's overextended drunken belly dance and the goofy twanging music that accompanies it.
But more often, the production's hokeyness and exaggerations simply add helium to the proceedings. And this fable of rejuvenation, very appropriately, gives a much-needed boost to the newly reopened Circle in the Square, which by rights should finally have the popular hit denied by this season's wan productions of "The Shadow Box" and "Uncle Vanya."
When Alvaro, whose first act of chivalry is to capture the goat that has been rooting among Serafina's tomato plants, leads the animal onstage followed by two delighted children and an old woman, you may indeed feel a swelling of what Williams wrote he was trying to convey in this play: "the Dionysian element in human life." I can't think of a better way for New York audiences to celebrate the rites of spring.
Mercedes Ruehl is such a fearless actress that one happily follows anywhere she wants to go. She's spent the year in the service of real writers: first Cynthia Ozick, then Michael Cristofer and now Tennessee Williams, in a revival of "The Rose Tattoo." Ruehl would seem a natural for the role of Serafina Delle Rose, the embodiment for Williams of the lusty, earthy Italians he came to love during a sojourn in that country, though the character is transplanted to the U.S.' Gulf Coast. The part was written for Anna Magnani, though Maureen Stapleton played it in the Broadway premiere before Magnani did the memorable movie, with Burt Lancaster as her determined, if slightly foolish, suitor.
Robert Falls' revival for Circle in the Square, featuring Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia, may prove to be an audience pleaser. But in truth, "The Rose Tattoo" is not a great play for the self-help age. After all, it's the story of a young widow faithful for years to the memory of a husband who was unfaithful to her, as we know almost from the outset. And when, in the play's final moments, she yields to a man who has already revealed himself to be a loser and a liar, it's not so much an embrace of life -- this is no Auntie Mame, no Zorba -- as it is an act of revenge upon a ghost.
In the 1950s this may have been seen as some sort of salvation, an indomitable woman's triumphant breakthrough before finally moving on. Today, it looks like an awful lot of wasted time in the memory of a jerk.
Perhaps there's something significant in the fact that a bio of the playwright was omitted from the Playbill, for an essential element is missing from this production. Falls deftly draws on the humor, but he can't get around the fact that Williams was slumming, or that the play's symbolism is so wearingly heavy-handed as to venture into the realm of self-parody. You want real sparks between the actors playing Serafina and Alvaro, but good as they are and hard as they try, Ruehl and LaPaglia generate more chuckles than heat.
How could it be otherwise in a play whose leading lady can recount exactly the number of nights she made love with her late husband, and whose leading man first gains entry into her home when he's the recipient of a swift kick to the crotch?
Falls and designers Santo Loquasto (sets) and Kenneth Posner (lighting) have produced a show that's long on rural atmosphere, from the hokey, Zamfir-like music to the kite-flying kids who occasionally run through the yard of Serafina's rose-tattooed home. A witch (Irma St. Paule) prowls around casting spells, and there's even a goat to add whatever it is goats add to the proceedings.
But the performances never quite mesh, and the show has a museum-piece quality: Individual moments seem to be frozen in time. Add to that the fussy staging demands of the arena setting, and this "Rose Tattoo" is more infuriating than inspiring.
Ruehl's sheer exuberance -- who else could have so much fun doing battle with a girdle? -- could mask any production's shortcomings. But one has to spend most of the time looking at the back of her head, and that's not good when it's imperative we see Serafina's reactions, as well as hear her voice.
For his part, LaPaglia has the right rough-edged charm, even if he doesn't measure up physically to Serafina's repeated evocation of her hunky dead husband (perhaps fidelity wasn't her only cherished illusion).
There are lovely performances from Cara Buono, as Serafina's girl-into-woman daughter, and Dylan Chalfy as her sailor suitor. Philip LeStrange has a terrific pair of cameos, first as an understanding doctor, then as a redneck traveling salesman. Some of the smaller parts are not as well cast.
"The Rose Tattoo" is by far the best of Circle in the Square's three offerings in what has been a very difficult season for the company. And the Circle owes much to Ruehl, who was equally game in its earlier production of "The Shadow Box." But this remains a passable production of a play that will never rank as top-drawer Williams.