American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 15, $59-$299
Perhaps no one knows Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play better than David Alan Grier, even more so than Fuller himself. In the show’s original 1981-83 Negro Ensemble run, which earned Fuller the Pulitzer Prize and featured Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson, Grier replaced Larry Riley as Pvt. C. J. Memphis. In Norman Jewison’s 1984 film, starring Caesar, Washington, Riley, Howard E. Rollins Jr., Wings Hauser, Robert Townsend, and Patti LaBelle, Grier played Cpl. Bernard Cobb. And now Grier is taking on the role of controversial sergeant Vernon C. Waters in the show’s Broadway debut, a Roundabout production that moves with expert military precision at the American Airlines Theatre.
It’s 1944, and Waters is in charge of an all-black unit of the 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company at Fort Neal, Louisiana, under the command of Capt. Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell). In the opening moment, a drunk Waters is on his knees on a platform, calling out, “They’ll still hate you!” A shot rings out, and Waters falls dead, murdered in cold blood by an unseen perpetrator. Capt. Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood), a black lawyer attached to the 343rd Military Police Corps Unit, arrives to solve the crime, but the white Taylor has a problem with that.
“I didn’t know that Major Hines was assigning a Negro, Davenport,” Taylor says. “My preparations were made in the belief that you’d be a white man. I think it only fair to tell you that had I known what Hines intended I would have requested the immediate suspension of the investigation. . . . I don’t want to offend you, but I just cannot get used to it — the bars, the uniform — being in charge just doesn’t look right on Negroes!” Taylor attempts to talk Davenport out of accepting the case, in part because of the danger he thinks he will face from the local KKK, but Davenport is not about to be scared into leaving. “I got it. And I am in charge! All your orders instruct you to do is cooperate!” he firmly declares.
Assisted by Taylor’s right-hand man, Cpl. Ellis (Warner Miller), Davenport begins interrogating the members of the unit, which includes Pfc Melvin Peterson (Nnamdi Asomugha), Pvt. Louis Henson (McKinley Belcher III), Cpl. Cobb (Rob Demery), Pvt. Tony Smalls (Jared Grimes), Pvt. James Wilkie (Billy Eugene Jones), and Pvt. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson), each of whom had a unique relationship with Waters, via their responsibilities to the army as well as through their place on the company’s extremely successful baseball team, as most of them played in the Negro League. Their stories unfold in flashback as Davenport and the witness sit stage right as the captain watches the action take place in the center and at left. Derek McLane’s two-level wooden set switches from the men’s barracks to Davenport’s and Taylor’s offices as chairs and desks are brought on and offstage and beds are pushed from the back to the front, accompanied by sharp lighting by Allen Lee Hughes.
Davenport also speaks with key white suspects Lt. Byrd (Nate Mann) and Capt. Wilcox (Lee Aaron Rosen); the former in particular is an avowed racist with no respect for Davenport. “Where I come from, colored don’t talk the way he spoke to us — not to white people they don’t!” Byrd says about Waters, talking about the night of the killing. Davenport discovers that Waters apparently had many more enemies than friends, resulting in plenty of suspects.
Directed with adroit sureness by Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, American Son) and loosely inspired by Herman Melville’s 1924 novella Billy Budd, A Soldier’s Play is a scorching look at racism, in the military in 1944 as well as today. Waters strongly believes that black men need to rethink their place in society and how they will succeed. “The First War, it didn’t change much for us, boy — but this one — it’s gonna change a lot of things,” he tells Memphis. “The black race can’t afford you no more. There use ta be a time when we’d see somebody like you, singin’, clownin’ — yas-sah-bossin’ — and we wouldn’t do anything. . . . Not no more. The day of the geechy is gone, boy — the only thing that can move the race is power. It’s all the white respects — and people like you just make us seem like fools.” It’s not a position that everyone agrees with, but Grier (Porgy and Bess, In Living Color) handles the role with a grace and intelligence that makes Waters neither hero nor villain, instead a strong-willed individual with a different experience than his fellow soldiers, and a different way of approaching the future.
Underwood (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Trip to Bountiful), whose father is a retired army colonel, is bold and steadfast as Davenport, a fearless man who is going to stand by his convictions and fight for what he’s earned. O’Connell (Stand by Me, Seminar) is resolute as Taylor, who is somewhat caught in the middle, a stand-in for much of America of the 1940s (and today), wrestling with the racism he grew up with while seemingly trying to accept that things are changing. Leon and Fuller (Zooman and the Sign, A Gathering of Old Men) do an excellent job developing the characters, each actor — there are no women in this testosterone-filled tale — getting the chance to speak his mind, wearing Dede Ayite’s effective costumes and eliciting some whoops when taking them off. Now almost forty years old, A Soldier’s Play doesn’t feel dated in the least. In fact, it feels all too of-the-moment, and all too necessary.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Monday - Saturday through February 29, $70-$150
It’s always a pleasure watching the exquisite Laura Linney, whether on television, in film, or onstage. Nominated for three Oscars and four Tonys and winner of four Emmys, the Manhattan native has an instantly infectious appeal; you want to be in her luminous presence. She is terrific once again in her latest Broadway play, the one-woman show My Name Is Lucy Barton, which is based on Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel and continues at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 29. Under Richard Eyre’s expert direction, she flows between sharing her story with the audience and portraying her mother. So why isn’t it better?
Born and raised in the rural town of Amgash, Illinois, Lucy is now reflecting on a critical time in her life, when she spent nearly nine weeks in a New York City hospital. Her husband hates hospitals, so he refuses to visit her, instead choosing to care for their two young daughters. She is estranged from her parents and siblings but is shocked when her mother, who she hasn’t seen in many years, unexpectedly arrives and spends days and days sitting in a chair in Lucy’s hospital room, mostly gossiping about people from the old neighborhood, quite disinterested in Lucy and her family. While her mother is there, Lucy recalls the physical and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents and discusses the life she led as a child, with no television, no newspapers or magazines, no books, no friends, no sense of personal identity. “How do you even know what you look like if the only mirror in the house is a tiny one high above the kitchen sink?” she says.
So she set out on a new course, moving to the big city but unable to shake a haunting loneliness. “I was lonely,” she explains. “Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It’s this loneliness that is at the center of the story, and primarily women’s loneliness. Her mother can’t stop talking about women like her friend Kathie Nicely and her cousin Harriet, who left their husbands or were left by them, and their often unsuccessful efforts to make new lives and establish their own identities.
But there’s also a lonely feeling watching the play; we wrap ourselves around Linney (The Little Foxes, The Big C, The Savages), not the narrative, which seems inconsequential for the most part, and the material lets down the rest of Eyre’s (Guys and Dolls, Notes on a Scandal) production, which is stellar. Bob Crowley’s pristine set consists of a chair and a hospital bed as well as three successively larger wall screens in the back on which video designer Luke Halls projects peaceful shots of corn and soybean fields in Illinois and the Chrysler Building and streets of New York City, with precise lighting by Peter Mumford as Linney shifts between characters.
Despite it being her story, Lucy is an unreliable narrator. She regularly says “I think,” not firm in what she is relating. At one point she says of her mother, “Maybe she didn’t say that. I don’t remember.” Later she admits, “I still am not sure it’s a true memory, except I do know it, I think. I mean: It is true.” It’s as if she’s doing a (wonderfully) staged reading of the book; Rona Munro’s (The James Plays, Bold Girls) adaptation sounds more like an audiobook you can listen to while driving. In fact, the play is presented “in association with” Penguin Random House Audio, which published the audiobook in 2016, read very differently by Kimberly Farr. But forgetting everything else, there is one main reason to see the play, and her name is Laura Linney.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Wednesday - Sunday through June 7, $39 - $199
Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance is a terrific two-and-a-half-hour play — however, it runs six and a half hours in two lengthy installments at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, each of which requires separate admission. Angels in America meets The Boys in the Band by way of E. M. Forster’s Howards End in the epic drama, which broke the record for winning the most Best Play awards in the West End, including four Oliviers (Best Play, Best Actor for Kyle Soller, Best Director for Stephen Daldry, and Best Lighting Design by Jon Clark). The play is set in contemporary New York City, where Eric Glass (Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) are in love and are considering marriage after seven years together. Toby is a beautiful, magnetic, hard-partying writer who is turning his coming-of-age novel, Loved Boy, into a play; the more grounded Eric works for Jasper (Kyle Harris), a social justice entrepreneur. Eric and Toby are friends with an urbane, wealthy older couple, Walter Poole (Paul Hilton) and Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), who host fabulous gatherings at their summer place in the Hamptons. Fate brings actor Adam McDowell (Samuel H. Levine) into Toby’s life; Toby quickly thinks Adam should star in his play. But when Toby meets bedraggled street prostitute Leo (Levine), a double for Adam, various relationships start swirling out of control.
Throughout the play, Forster (Hilton) comments on the plot and interacts with some of the characters, as if he’s the omniscient narrator of a novel. Early on, a Greek chorus of young men speak with Forster about Howards End. “It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong. And the movie’s good. But, I mean, the world is so different now. I can’t identify with it at all,” one man says. “It’s been a hundred years,” adds another. “The world has changed so much,” a third points out. “Our lives are nothing like the people in your book,” a fourth chimes in. Forster asks, “How can that be true? Hearts still love, don’t they? And break. Hope, fear, jealousy, desire. Your lives may be different. But surely the feelings are the same. The difference is merely setting, context, costumes. But those are just details.” Lopez is referring to his play itself, a modern-day reimagining of Howards End that has been transformed into a gay fantasia. The difference in context matters very much, however, and is brought into sharp focus by the presence of Forster, a closeted homosexual who did not have sex until he was thirty-eight and died in 1970 at the age of ninety-one. He would not allow his own gay fantasia, the queer novel Maurice, written in 1912, to be published until after his death, a fact that is discussed in the play, which also deals directly with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.
Hilton (Peter Pan, Anatomy of a Suicide) is sensational as both Forster and Walter; when he reappears onstage after a lengthy absence, the audience erupts into applause, and with good reason: He is essential to the narrative, which too often drifts into melodrama that would even make Douglas Sirk cringe. Levine (Kill Floor) makes a poignant Broadway debut as Adam and Leo, switching between two characters that are polar opposites of each other. Soller is superb as the thoughtful and caring Eric, displaying a tender chemistry with Tony winner Hickey (The Normal Heart, Love! Valour! Compassion!), whose Henry is the seasoned sage of the group and whose painful memories of those lost to AIDS leads to one of the play’s most searing moments. (Hickey will be on hiatus through April 22 to make his directing debut with Plaza Suite and will be replaced by Tony Goldwyn.) Daldry (Billy Elliot, Skylight) tries to keep things moving on Bob Crowley’s minimal set, a large platform around which Eric and Toby’s friends and wannabe writers (including Jonathan Burke, Carson McCalley, Jordan Barbour, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Dylan Frederick, and Arturo Luís Soria) hang out, watch the action, and interject, getting more in the way than adding worthwhile dialogue.
“With personal relationships. Here is something comparatively solid in a world full of violence and cruelty,” Forster wrote in his seminal 1938 essay “What I Believe,” continuing, “Not absolutely solid, for Psychology has split and shattered the idea of a ‘Person,’ and has shown that there is something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance. We don’t know what we are like. We can’t know what other people are like. How, then, can we put any trust in personal relationships, or cling to them in the gathering political storm? In theory we cannot. But in practice we can and do.” Lopez (The Whipping Man, The Legend of Georgia McBride) captures that part of Forster’s ethos but also strays from it too often.
There is also a very noticeable lack of women in the story, and only one onstage, the key figure of Margaret, played by the impeccable Lois Smith (The Trip to Bountiful, Marjorie Prime), who sums it all up at the end, but by that time Lopez has long bit off more than he can chew, taking on too much and losing focus of the main plot in favor of emotionally manipulative scenes that lack the necessary subtlety even as he tackles such intense subjects as gay eroticism, class, sex, AIDS, and, most critically, legacy. The Inheritance is filled with delicate, beautiful scenes that will move you deeply, unforgettable moments that exemplify what makes live theater so potent. But it just can’t sustain itself for six and a half hours.
The Sound Inside is one of the most beautifully composed shows I have ever seen, an exquisitely rendered work that could have come only from the mind of an expert storyteller. Originally presented in 2018 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and commissioned by Lincoln Center, it is written by novelist and playwright Adam Rapp, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who has authored such books as The Year of Endless Sorrows, Punkzilla, and Know Your Beholder and such plays as Red Light Winter, The Metal Children, and Blackbird, which he adapted into a 2007 film he also directed. In The Sound Inside, a luminous Mary Louise Parker stars as fifty-three-year-old Yale professor Bella Lee Baird. (Rapp has taught at the Yale School of Drama, and his mother’s maiden name is Baird.) Bella, who has written a mildly well received book, Billy Baird Runs through a Wall, alternates between telling her story in the first and third persons directly to the audience, as if narrating a novel, and participating in scenes with one of her students, the enigmatic and cynical Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman).
“A middle-aged professor of undergraduate creative writing at a prestigious Ivy League University stands before an audience of strangers,” Bella says to open the play. “She can’t quite see them but they’re out there. She can feel them — they’re as certain as old trees. Gently creaking in the heavy autumn air. Is this audience friendly, she wonders? Merciful? Are they easily distracted? Or will they hear this woman out? And what about her? Ironically, she often dissuades her students from describing a protagonist in too fine of detail. Readers only need a few telling clues.” Rapp and director David Cromer, who subtly transforms Studio 54 into an intimate classroom, follow that advice, offering only a few telling clues at a time as we excitedly hear this captivating woman out.
Christopher shows up at Bella’s office one day without an appointment. He has a supreme distaste for rules and regulations and eschews common decency. “Do me a favor. Next time you want to stop by without an appointment at least shoot me an email first,” she tells him. “Yeah, I don’t really do that,” he responds. They discuss Dostoyevsky, hipster baristas, and the book Christopher is writing. They strike up a friendship, but Christopher knows he is taking up a lot of her time. “I mean, if you get tired of me just say so and I can go like wander campus and get mentally prepared for the big football game coming up with Harvard this weekend,” he says. “Stockpile the coldcuts. Get my face painted. Do some steroids. Headbutt random campus bulletin boards, etcetera, etcetera.”
Bella, who’s dealing with stomach cancer and has no one else in her life, welcomes the offbeat Christopher into her daily existence. “I have no children and I’ve never been married,” she tells the audience. “Like many single, self-possessed women who’ve managed to find solid footing in the slippery foothills of higher education, I’ve been accused of being a lesbian. And a witch. And a maker of Bulgarian cheese. And a collector of cat calendars. Both my parents are dead. My father suffered a fatal heart attack at sixty-two and I’ll get to my mother in a minute. I have no brothers or sisters. I live in faculty housing. I don’t own property. I’m essentially a walking social security number with a coveted Ivy League professorship and a handful of moth-bitten sweaters.” As they grow closer, they both consider breaking down the barriers that make them each such lonely beings, committing to no one but themselves.
It’s impossible not to become instantly infatuated with Bella, so bewitchingly played by Tony, Obie, and Emmy winner Parker (Proof, Weeds). You want to just rush onstage and give her a giant hug to assure her everything will be all right, even if it won’t. Parker holds the audience in her hands, giving a tour-de-force lesson in acting. Hochman (Sweat, Dead Poets Society) is impressive in his Broadway debut, not intimidated in the least. Rapp celebrates literature without getting pedantic as he explores Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, and James Salter’s Light Years. Alexander Woodward’s set features several rooms that move into the foreground and disappear into the background, superbly lit by Heather Gilbert, each one representing a different aspect of Bella’s life. Tony winner Cromer (The Band’s Visit, Our Town) keeps up a lively pace as the characters scrutinize what they are to each other.
The play refers several times to a framed photograph in Bella’s office of a “woman standing in the middle of a harvested cornfield. She’s in all black and tiny in the vast dead field,” she tells Christopher, who asks, “Is that you in the photograph? Of course it is.” But Bella says she has no idea who it is. The next time he visits her in her office, Christopher is mesmerized by the photo and asks, “Has she gotten smaller? . . . I have this weird feeling that if I come back tomorrow the field will be covered. With snow. Like twenty inches. But no footprints. The woman’s just there. As if the field imagined her.” Bella asks, “Do you think it would be a better image?” He replies, “Maybe not better. But somehow more inevitable.” It’s a fabulous moment in a fabulous play, and one that zeroes in on just who these two people are and what they want out of life.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 8, $179 - $799
Just about all you need to know about Moulin Rouge! The Musical! is that, yes, there are two exclamation points in the title. If you thought Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie was over the top and filled to excess, wait till you see the Broadway show. Actually, let me take that back; just trust me and skip it unless you’re looking to toss away between $179 and $799 on a bright red saccharine bonbon. As you enter the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, you’re immersed in the sexy, velvety world of the Moulin Rouge, to great effect. (The set design is by the masterful Derek McLane.) Sultry men and women are there to greet and entice you at the sides of the stage, a large windmill beckons from above (“Moulin Rouge” means “red mill”), but beware the big blue elephant in the room. (Literally.) The opening number shows promise, with Danny Burstein leading the adult circus as nightclub owner and ringleader Harold Zidler, who declares, “Hello, chickens! Yes, it’s me. Your own beloved Harold Zidler. In the flesh. Welcome, you gorgeous collection of reprobates and rascals, artistes and arrivistes, soubrettes and sodomites, welcome to the Moulin Rouge!” He continues, “No matter your sin, you’re welcome here. No matter your desire, you’re welcome here. For this is more than a nightclub. The Moulin Rouge is a state of mind. It is that part of your soul which throbs and pulses, it is that corner of your mind where your fantasies live.” Well, not my fantasies, at least.
The sails come off the mill quickly after that, as the innocent and penniless Christian (Aaron Tveit) tumbles head over heels in love with Moulin Rouge star Satine (Karen Olivo), whom Zidler has already given to the Duke (Tam Mutu) in exchange for money that will help keep the club open. Meanwhile, French artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) follows along, commenting from a Montmartre café. “Face it, Toulouse. We’re not songwriters,” his friend Santiago (Ricky Rojas) says. Lautrec replies, “How hard can it be, for God sake?! June, spoon, moon — done!” Apparently, it’s pretty darn hard, as Moulin Rouge! The Musical! is stuffed to the gills with snippets of more than seventy hits that are either annoying in their brevity or severely overdramatized; just as in the film, the gimmick grows tired fast, even with familiar tunes by Talking Heads, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Lourde, U2, Sia, the Rolling Stones, and Edith Piaf.
Directed by two-time Tony nominee Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love) and with a predictable book by Tony winner and three-time Oscar nominee John Logan (Red, The Last Ship), the show is all glitz and glamour (the costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the choreography by Sonya Tayeh) with no chemistry whatsoever between the characters; not only will you not care about what happens to Christian, Satine, and the Duke, you’ll actively root for them to just make up their minds already and put us out of our misery. (The bloviated production runs just over two and a half hours.) And don’t fall for all the tongue-in-cheek self-referential and anachronistic pop-culture blather. Early on, Christian tells Lautrec and Santiago, “So it turns out they were in the midst of writing a theatrical play with some songs in it. They wanted me to go to the Moulin Rouge and sing one of my songs for the star there, sort of an audition. If she liked my music then she’d get the club to put on their show, which they called Bohemian Rhapsody. I swear, they were like two knockabout vaudevillians escaped from the nearest asylum and the whole thing was the single most insane idea I’d ever heard.” Hey, he said it, not me.
205 West 46th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 20, $79-$229
Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll Tina Turner turns eighty today, a major milestone in a complicated, difficult life that is currently under the microscope on Broadway in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, continuing through next September at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Adrienne Warren is explosive in the title role, giving a dazzling performance as Tina transforms herself from little Anna Mae Bullock (Skye Dakota Turner) singing in church to joining Ike Turner’s (Daniel J. Watts) band to ultimately carving out a memorable second-half-of-life career after being physically and psychologically abused and supposedly being washed up at the age of forty. Presented in “association with Tina Turner,” it’s an inspiring rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story that is a step above the recent spate of mediocre (or worse) biographical jukebox musicals that includes Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, The Cher Show, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Aint Too Proud to Beg: The Life and Times of the Temptations.
The book is by rising African American playwright Katori Hall (Our Lady of Kibeho, Hurt Village) with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins (Hij Gelooft in Mij), and the show is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who has helmed Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady as well as a well-received all-female Shakespeare trilogy. Tina is paced like a concert, with a strong, fast beginning, some slower moments in the middle, and a grand finale. Not all of it works, particularly as the second act drips into Hallmark territory as Tina’s mother, Zelma (Dawnn Lewis), gets sick. Another problem is that instead of the songs appearing more or less in chronological order as the story unfolds, they are squeezed into scenes because of their content, not when they were recorded, so, for example, her 1983 version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is followed, in succession, by 1984’s “Better Be Good to Me,” 1970’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” 1966’s “River Deep — Mountain High,” 1989’s “Be Tender with Me, Baby,” 1971’s “Proud Mary,” and 1993’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight No More.” Tina didn’t write any of these songs, so they don’t relate to her state of mind at the time, and, even more important, the narrative is by then only up to the early 1980s, several years before she meets manager Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin) and starts her comeback with some of the very tunes we’ve now already heard. It might be a great concert setlist but it muddies the waters of a chronological tale. And don’t even get me started on the prominence of “We Don’t Need Another Hero”; did anyone listen to the end of the chorus and wonder where the line “All we want is life beyond Thunderdome” fits into Tina’s life (particularly without mentioning the Mad Max film it’s from)?
That said, Mark Thompson’s sets and costumes shine, Anthony van Laast’s choreography glints and glimmers, and Nicholas Skilbeck’s arrangements and Ethan Popp’s orchestrations, performed by an eleven-piece rock band, do justice to the originals. In addition to Warren’s star turn as Tina — prepare to be awed at how she makes her way up and down the staircase in heels during the encores — Myra Lucretia Taylor is heartwarming as Tina’s grandmother, Gran Georgeanna; Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, and Mars Rucker have fun as the Ikettes; Dakota Turner reveals quite a strong voice as the young Anna Mae; and Watts does not make Ike pure evil, though you still might consider hissing at him at the curtain call. But the show is really all about Warren (Shuffle Along, Bring It On: The Musical), who commands the stage with a magnetic presence and instantly wins over the audience with her unceasing energy, flashy movement, and magical voice, just like the woman she is portraying has done for decades. Happy birthday, Tina!
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 8, $59-$299
Following the disappointing reaction to his third major play, Summer and Smoke, a Broadway failure in 1948 after the runaway successes of 1944’s The Glass Menagerie and 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Mississippi-born playwright Tennessee Williams headed to Sicily with the love of his life, Frank Merlo. The trip reenergized Williams and inspired him to write The Rose Tattoo, which won four Tonys in 1951, including Best Play, Best Supporting Actor (Eli Wallach), and Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton). “The Rose Tattoo was my love-play to the world,” he wrote in Memoirs. “It was permeated with the happy young love for Frankie and I dedicated the book to him, saying: ‘To Frankie in return for Sicily.’” Roundabout’s revival of the play at the American Airlines Theatre, its ninth Williams show since 1975, is a fiery, passionate affair imbued with broad comedy, along with muddling confusion.
The play is set in 1950 in a Gulf Coast village populated by Sicilian immigrants. Serafina Delle Rose (Marisa Tomei) is eagerly awaiting the return of her truck-driver husband, who she calls the Baron. “The clock is a fool. I don’t listen to it. My clock is my heart and my heart don’t say tick-tick, it says love-love!” she tells Assunta (Carolyn Mignini), an elderly fattuchiere. But the Baron never makes it home, leaving Serafina a young widow raising a daughter, Rosa (Ella Rubin), by herself. Regularly surrounded by a Greek chorus of women in black (Andréa Burns as Peppina, Susan Cella as Giuseppina, Jennifer Sánchez as Mariella, and Ellyn Marie Marsh as Violetta) and with the Strega (Constance Shulman) ever lurking about, the young widow mourns intensely for three years, praying to her very special statue of the Virgin Mary at a shrine at stage front and to the urn that holds her husband’s ashes. Serafina, a seamstress having trouble sewing her life back together, swears to be faithful to the Baron’s memory while she tries to protect Rosa’s virginity as Rosa strenuously tries to lose it to Jack (Burke Swanson), an eighteen-year-old sailor in the throes of young love. But when she overhears Bessie (Paige Gilbert) and Flora (Portia) gossiping about how the Baron cheated on her with the fancy Estelle Hoehengarten (Tina Benko), Rose has to rethink her life, especially when she meets another truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Emun Elliott), as he’s being harassed by a racist traveling salesman (Greg Hildreth). Alvaro reminds her of the Baron, lighting a fire inside her she hasn’t felt for a long time.
Obie-wining director Trip Cullman zeroes in on the comic aspects of Williams’s story; if you’ve seen the 1955 movie starring Anna Magnani, who won an Oscar as Serafina, a role Williams wrote for her, you might be surprised at just how funny it is, including a bizarre moment with condoms that led to an arrest in a 1957 Irish production. Meanwhile, a scene involving Bessie and Portia coming to Serafina to pick up clothing she made for them is so racist it’s hard not to wonder why it’s done in that style in this day and age. Many of Cullman’s plays have unique and unusual sets that offer complex ways to look at the work, from Lobby Hero and Significant Other to Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow and The Pain of My Belligerence. But Mark Wendland’s stage for The Rose Tattoo is confounding. It’s a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces, with a wooden walkway over sand, a living room, a window, a flock of pink flamingos at the back, and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections of the tide rolling in on the shore on three sides. Characters enter and exit inconsistently in too many different ways so it’s hard to tell where everything leads to and from. Tomei (The Realistic Joneses, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage), whose maternal grandmother was Sicilian, is steamy and, appropriately, ardent — Serafina means “ardent” in Italian — as the zealous widow, imbuing her with a fierce sexuality, leaving Elliott (Black Watch, Red Velvet), in his Broadway debut, to play catch-up. (The pair was played by Stapleton and Wallach in the 1951 original, Magnani and Burt Lancaster in the 1955 film, Stapleton and Harry Guardino in the 1966 Broadway revival, and Mercedes Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia in the 1995 Broadway adaptation.) Rubin is a force as Rosa, representing the next generation of Italian Americans who are not about to do things the way their parents did. Jonathan Linden contributes country-folk blues off stage right, enhancing the period setting.
“During the past two years I have been, for the first time in my life, happy and at home with someone and I think of this play as a monument to that happiness, a house built of images and words for that happiness to live in,” Williams wrote to Elia Kazan in June 1950 when asking him to direct the show. “But in that happiness there is the long, inescapable heritage of the painful and the perplexed like the dark corners of a big room.” Williams even threw in a nod to Merlo, the man responsible for his happiness and whom he called the Little Horse, by giving Alvaro the last name Mangiacavallo, which means “eat a horse.” This latest Broadway revival of The Rose Tattoo also manages to find happiness amid the painful and the perplexed.