In Tennessee Williams’ plays, whatever their quality, one can always count on poetic expression and sensitivity. One can’t find those qualities in Roundabout Theatre Company’s over-the-top revival of Williams’ 1951 work. Marisa Tomei gives a dynamic performance as the widowed seamstress Serafina Delle Rose, but it borders on caricature, which prevents one for developing sympathy for her. To be sure, there are comic elements in Williams’ vision, but the play is more than that. Even while generating laughter, Serafina needs to be taken seriously and that potential is not realized this time around.
The year is 1950 and the setting is a village somewhere along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile. Serafina is of Sicilian heritage, as are the inhabitants we meet in this particular locale. The set designed by Mark Wendland for the very wide stage is primarily the bare bones of a house, with Lucy Mackinnon’s projection design providing a vast ocean front background with rippling waves. Prominent is the Serafina’s little shrine of the Virgin Mary, which she worships and talks to, expressing her thoughts, questions and anxieties.
Serafina’s life collapses when women in black (sort of a Greek chorus, only Sicilian), bring her news of her truck driver’s death in an accident. Serafina delighted in her husband’s virile body, which had a rose tattoo, and his death leaves her bereft and minus their sex. They had a daughter, Rosa (Ella Rubin), whom Serafina is trying to keep virginal. Serafina stores her husband’s ashes in a white urn on a shelf.
Alas, Serafina is awakened by the appearance of another truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo, fortuitously also a Sicilian, whose name embarrassingly means eat a horse. His body, reminding her of her husband’s, sensually attracts her. Alvero is given to tearful breakdowns but in a simple way is a force that ignites a new passion in Serafina. As colorfully played by Emun Elliott with a heavy accent, he is outrageously larger-than-life. Alvaro and Sarafina alternately fight and get close, maneuver in talky affection and hostility, and as one might expect, eventually couple with attempted secrecy. But the town quickly knows thanks to the observance of the local gossip monger, who is superstitiously regarded as bad news because she only has one-eye.
There are lots of characters we see in the course of the play-- children running around, various locals, a young sailor, Jack (Burke Swanson), with whom Serafina’s daughter Rosa has become romantically involved. There is Tina Benko as Estelle Hohengarten, who, as it turns out, was having an affair with Serafina’s husband. There are fewer performers in this staging than in the 1951 production, and most notably, the role of the priest has been cut.
Under Trip Cullman’s direction, the play is done at a high pitch, with Serafina consistently explosive—a time bomb waiting to go off—and her supernatural feelings fervently articulated. One can get caught up in Tomei’s turbulent performance enhanced with a Sicilian accent but without feeling that she is more than an exaggeration. (In the 1955 movie version, Serafina was played by the great Italian actress Anna Magnani.) But credit Tomei with giving a bravura performance along the lines of director Cullman’s interpretation. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed October 18, 2019