Quick–what Tennessee Williams play won the Tony? A Streetcar Named Desire? Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Nope. It was the hot-blooded The Rose Tattoo that took top honors in 1951, winning the three others it was nominated for as well, including one for star Maureen Stapleton. The playwright’s first casting choice, Anna Magnani, won the Oscar for its 1955 film adaptation, and Stapleton again played fiery Serafina Delle Rose in a 1966 revival. Mercedes Ruehl had a go at it in 1995, its last Broadway production. And now we have Marisa Tomei–and that is a problem.
Not with her; she’s a warm and gently flavorful presence, someone I always enjoy seeing. But Serafina, a long-grieving widow who lionizes her dead husband despite his possible faithlessness and drags everyone around her, including her teenage daughter, into her overblown arias of depression, is a thunderstorm of a part. Tomei is a cloudburst of a performer, frazzled at times but competent and compassionate, someone who would more easily get over whatever’s bugging her. And at 54 she doesn’t look a day over her age in the Oscar-winning My Cousin Vinny (1992), in a part that calls for, and received, earthy, weatherbeaten actresses. There’s a certain diminishment here, just as Aunt May went from Rosemary Harris to Sally Field to Tomei in the Spider-Man movies, with greater consequence to the whole.
Without a galvanizing Serafina you don’t have a Rose Tattoo; with one, frankly, you still don’t have much of a play, which accounts for its spotty history on a Main Stem that’s lousy with cats, streetcars, and glass menageries. It’s a comedy, minus the poetry of Williams’ classics, and something of a slog, Moonstruck with a more abrasive edge. Serafina’s problem, after her husband’s passing, is sex, and her suppressed lust is at its center, which kicked up some controversy back then. (A condom makes an appearance.) The first act is all buildup, with (distractingly glitchy) walls of projections and dozens of campy pink flamingoes laboriously setting the scene in the Gulf Coast; the second is more rewarding, with Tomei getting to play off the truck driver Alvaro (Emun Elliott, in the part that won Eli Wallach a Tony), the one man she can’t shake despite his own duplicities. But it was too late for the couple sitting next to me, who bailed at intermission, and director Trip Cullman’s attempts to enliven the staging with bits of Italian song to accompany the actors’ spaghetti-and-meatballs accents also fell short. The bloom is off this Rose.
Wheeler, the protagonist of Linda Vista, is the kind of guy I can only spend ten minutes with…so of course Tracy Letts, of Killer Joe, Bug, and the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning August: Osage County, zeroes in on him for close to three uncomfortable hours. Divorced, walled off from his resentful son, and going through the motions in the dead-end job of camera repairman, Wheeler (as wormily incarnated by Ian Barford) has nothing left except opinions, which he shares with his few remaining friends at wind-bagging length. Radiohead, out; Steely Dan, in. (The show is practically a jukebox musical, with their songs as steady underscore.) He’s the type of guy who picks Barry Lyndon as the best film to introduce the women in his life to Stanley Kubrick, then complains about their boredom.
“Women in his life”? Two, which Letts labors to make work. One, Jules (Cora Vander Broek), is an age-appropriate “life coach” (which Wheeler smirks at), but she likes his forthrightness and manages to break through his carapace of snark. They have sex, naked, noisy, discomfiting but very human, credible sex, something we’re seeing more of on Broadway than at the movies. (Slave Play, which made the leap from Off Broadway, is a grenade of race and sexual relations whose pin is pulled in its last, devastating scene, after prior satiric zaniness.) It looks like Wheeler has turned a corner, what with Jules offering him a second chance and a platonic, almost paternal friendship developing with Minnie (Chantal Thuy), a young Vietnamese-American woman expecting a baby by her feckless boyfriend. Act I ends as cozily as a Neil Simon comedy.
But this is a Letts show from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, directed without pity by Dexter Bullard, with an excellent turntable set (by Todd Rosenthal) that brings trouble around every bend. Suffice it to say that Wheeler takes a wrecking ball to his brittle happiness and in harrowing scenes lays waste to the few options he has open to him. Letts and Barford make him as comprehensible as possible, but recoil is assured. Upon ending Linda Vista received the most uncertain ovation I’ve ever heard–what were we to make of this loathsome, self-defeating person? (The biggest hand went to Vander Broek, ultimately its most sensible character.) All I can say is that I knew someone eerily like Wheeler (who cleaned up his act) and the playwright and star are faithful to the downward arc of this sort of life. Visit Linda Vista at your peril.