You worry for the ashes of Rosario, Serafina’s (Marisa Tomei) husband in The Rose Tattoo. They stand precariously on a shelf for almost the entire duration of Tennessee Williams’ little-known 1951 play.
The shelf is part of a tangle of candles and tchotchkes that form a flickering central sculpture of Mark Wendland’s set in this Roundabout Theatre Company production, which opened at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre on Tuesday night (to Dec. 8).
This is a play, set in 1950 in a village somewhere along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile, running at a gallop. When tragedy comes, it comes with shouting, gales of tears, and catatonia, and when it’s funny the play makes you laugh—a lot. Children run in and out across the stage, and characters make dramatic entrances and exits on a runway spanning the front of the stage, stretching to the left flank of the theater.
The play, directed by Trip Cullman, swoops in and out of these clashing registers rather as Tomei herself glides around the stage, her own, unpredictable emotional weather system. The stage is boskily beautiful, with a background projection of the sea (at daybreak, sunset, and nightfall) by Lucy Mackinnon, although the mysterious presence of a multitude of pink plastic flamingoes along the back of the stage persists throughout the play.
Around Serafina there is a chorus of women who sometimes seem like friends and sometimes seem like foes. They can sympathize with how unfortunate she is, and then turn on her, and they are led by The Strega (Constance Shulman), a witchy presence who looks half-pirate.
There is also Estelle (Tina Benko, grand and bright and duchess-y), who comes for Serafina to make a shirt—little does Serafina know who this shirt is for. Serafina’s unseen and soon-to-be-dead husband was unfaithful; in her grief she wills the information into the darkest recesses of her mind.
The play is about grief, buried betrayal, and bouncy renewal, but Tomei’s exquisite acting also makes it into a head-on collision of tragedy and comedy. She becomes too scared to let her daughter Rosa (Ella Ruib) leave the home. If she is frozen by grief, she does not see why others shouldn’t be too. Grief drives her mute, as well as mad.
And then, while Serafina is fighting to find a will to live beyond Rosa, she meets Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Emun Elliott). His name translates as “horse-eater,” and—once she wills herself from the fug of unhappiness—in a wonderfully comic moment, Serafina also recognizes he’s very hot too. He reminds her of Rosario, who, as the title of the play makes clear and the principal characters’ names underscore, had a rose tattoo on his body.
Maybe the rosy-colored flamingoes are an echo of this too, this warm throbbing color of life and promise. Whatever, Elliott and Tomei play their stuttering progress to romance with both flare and sensitivity, as well as for belly laughs. She wants to do something but can’t. He wants to respect her space but isn’t sure she wants him. And their body language tells the audience everything about how hot they are for each other. Rosa too is falling in love with sailor Jack (Burke Swanson), whom her mother mistrusts.
The play asks how disabling grief can be, how corrosive the memory of abused trust can remain, and how life can go on if only we give it half the chance. Tomei is a transfixing joy to spend time with; her limbs and hair are in a constant state of tossing emotion. Where will she go next, what will she say? Will she cry, scream, shout, laugh, or give us one of her brilliant lascivious side-eyes?
She is not a merry widow, far from it, but she ensures that it is somehow both moving and hilarious to see Serafina’s return to the world of desire, relationships, and maybe even love. The pink flamingoes may remain a mystery, but Serafina’s journey, thanks to Tomei’s energy and brio, is one you root for.
In January 2016, nearly two months after the Tony and Obie Award-winning writer David Henry Hwang was stabbed in the neck in Brooklyn while walking home from the grocery store, NBC News asked him if the almost fatal incident would color the two-time Pulitzer finalist’s work in the future.
“As a writer, everything in your life shows up in your work at some point,” Hwang replied. “I bet it is going to change my work somehow simply because it’s now part of my life and your life goes into your work.”
On Tuesday night, Hwang’s play Soft Power opened at the Public Theater (to Nov. 10), with music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori. Soft Power is not just about the stabbing. Indeed, the stabbing is both central to the musical and also weirdly absent and de-centered.
One part of Soft Power, as its title suggests, asks what is the power of art on politics. Can they, should they, benefit each other? What is the impact of culture when it comes to the ebb and flow of the power of nations?
As DHH (Francis Jue), as Hwang is known in the play’s program, lies in a hospital bed, he imagines a witty and pointed musical that uses all the tropes of Broadway musicals—grand, sweeping music, gorgeous choreography by Sam Pinkleton, and beautiful design by Clint Ramos—while audaciously subverting the form and genre.
The show, directed with a bright, colorful confidence by Leigh Silverman, is inspired by the questionable romantic and cultural politics of The King and I, and so in Soft Power, it is a Chinese character who questions American barbarism, cultural appropriation, and assumptions. And the questioning takes place in the fever dream that Hwang has after he is stabbed and lying unconscious in a hospital.
The producer Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora), who pre-stabbing has commissioned DHH to write a musical for a Chinese audience, is transformed in the fever dream into an instigator of change in a post-2016 America, where to be Chinese and American is personally imperiling.
Xūe Xíng meets Hillary Clinton (Alyse Alan Louis), and they fall in love, and it is he educating her about Chinese language and pronunciation (and eventually even educating the Trump-Pence White House away from guns) that forms the heart of the welcoming topsy-turvy world Hwang imagines.
Ricamora and Louis are as charming as an opposites-attract couple as any Broadway musical pairing. Tesori, as she helped do in Fun Home, has a wonderful knack of creating a lush melody, spiked with very pointed, political point-making. Louis finds angles on the Clinton character that feel fresh. A wonderful scene sees her, post-loss, ensconced with pizza and a metaphorical “do not disturb” sign around her neck.
In Soft Power, there is an intriguing contradiction between the lushness of what you are looking at and the layered and complex cultural drama you are watching. We spin far ahead into the future, where the musical-within-a-play has become a classic, and where the Chinese look upon Americans with pity at their hoary cultural artifacts.
Soft Power ranges everywhere through time and across themes of personal and political displacement, in and out of its different fictional worlds. Its focus can feel woolly and puzzling (and we leave Hwang and his stabbing in a way-too-long dramatic limbo), but its mischief and intelligence powerfully root it. If it can feel a mess in places, it‘s a good, energizing kind of mess.
Every fever dream must come to an end, and so it is with Soft Power. We return to Hwang’s stabbing, and the cold present-day of racism and hate-stirring. Hwang’s attacker, we learn, has never been caught, but in Soft Power he has crafted more than a graphic personal confessional.
Instead, this is a play with music that asks us to confront not just our ignorance and limitations, but also to listen and learn—hard. The play ends on a note of qualified hope, or more precisely the notion of recovery, Hwang’s and America’s. The healing process, Soft Power suggests, can be as painful as it is colorful and illuminating. Most importantly, it requires the patient’s engagement and determination.