The Rose Tattoo

Roundabout Theatre Company revives Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo at American Airlines Theatre, starring Marisa Tomei. Image based on originals by Matúš Petrila and Raven3K from FreeImages.com.
Does a wall of jumbotrons make this politically-incorrect tale suitable for a modern audience?

By Andrew Andrews

Tennessee Williams wrote The Rose Tattoo nearly seventy years ago, in an age when it was considered acceptable to make fun of immigrants as unsophisticated, ill-mannered savages.

Somewhere along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Sicilian-American Serafina Delle Rose withdraws from society after her husband is shot dead while smuggling unspecified contraband in his banana truck.

Meanwhile, her fifteen-year old daughter, Rosa, is coming of age and wants nothing to do with her overzealous mother or her reclusive behavior.

Lead by the matronly Assunta, the black-cloaked women of town form an almost operatic chorus, trying to draw Serafina out of her shell, withholding widespread knowledge that her deceased husband had been having an affair with a local blackjack dealer named Estelle.

The Rose Tattoo has received a lot of positive buzz, so we went into this performance with great expectations.

My first impression of the set was very negative: wrapped on three sides by giant video screens that depict nothing but rolling waves for the entirety of the show, hundreds of plastic lawn flamingos serve as a backdrop for a few telephone poles and large, distressed pieces of furniture. During the performance, I found it difficult to figure out which scenes were supposed to be taking place inside Serafina’s cottage and which were not, and I resented the notion that ninety-percent of the budget was blown on the televisions, one of which was glitchy throughout the show.

As you’d be right to expect from a production of this caliber, the acting was magnificent, with Marisa Tomei especially effective at making us fall in love with Serafina for the melodramatic outbursts from a pure-hearted woman, trying desperately to contain the fire in her heart as well as down below.

Although the primarily-older audience had no trouble laughing at the social commentary directed at the barbaric nature of the Sicilian-American, Roman Catholic immigrants, I can’t help but wonder if they’d be equally accepting if the play had made fun of people of color or Islamic practices instead.

Despite the bigotry of the script and the ill-conceived set—which will probably win a design award despite my loathing of it—I nonetheless enjoyed the performance for the wonderful work that the actors and director have put into it.

At the heart of the matter, The Rose Tattoo is a story of love and devotion that outlives ’til death do us part, and despite its political incorrectness, Williams’ script is a masterpiece of storytelling that continues to thrill audiences to this day.

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Andrew Andrews attended The Rose Tattoo at American Airlines Theatre in New York on Tuesday, October 29, 2019 @ 7:00pm to write this review.

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