Tennessee Williams was a dirty homosexual. He wrote about sex, he wrote about filth, rape, infidelity, Mexicans, pedophiles, Italians. He was at times brilliant, at times overly symbolic and—as is the case with The Rose Tattoo—he was sometimes just a dirty homosexual who was also brilliant and overly symbolic. Nevertheless, his plays require a dimension of grit, a paint-peeling kind of intensity with violent sexual stakes that rip tragically to the conclusion. Otherwise they come off as nothing more than the sweaty, retching metaphors of an indulgent queen.
As they do in this production. For some reason, the Rotarians piloting the Long Beach Playhouse through its 75th season, "The Best of Seven Decades of Theater," have elected to stage The Rose Tattoo as a play representative of the 1950s. The trouble is that the self-congratulatory septuagenarian clubhouse Hello Dolly! vibe of the playhouse carries onto the stage and meshes clumsily with the subject matter. Prudes and sex just ain't a good match.
The play deals with a Sicilian widow (valiantly attempted by Brenda Petrakos), apparently insane, who decides to hump a truck driver. She's under constant duress from prying kids, evil '50s white women and nosy ethnic neighbors. Now, the actors do nail the '50s-era white-people roles—especially the women. And the racist salesman rocked. But these folks wouldn't know a wop from a spic.
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The production suffers from that deliberate '50s inattention to the sexual, which immediately cuts the nads off what little Williams had going for him in this script—he described it as his "love story to the world," which in Williams' dirty homosexual worldview means unchecked sexual liberation. But instead of going down and dirty into Williams' libidinous subtext, this show suffers from horridly overblocked staging and unnecessary visual metaphors that complicate an already overly precious play. There are not only rose tattoos, there is rose water, rose hair oil, rose roses and even a rose friggin bathrobe. I'll spare you details of the hideously staged "techno-slow-mo" fight scene.
But most egregiously, this is a production that seems deliberately to misunderstand the sexually potent themes of the play, which translates into awkward emotionalism, trite stereotypes and entirely too much arm-waving. In short, the play suffers. And we suffer with it.
And stop miming the damn doors and windows. Just stop.
The Rose Tattoo at Long Beach Playhouse's Mainstage, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1014. Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; sun., 2 p.m. Through Feb. 15. $15-$20; students, $5.