Comic actress Andrea mArtin taken on T. Williams’s “Rose Tattoo”

By Maureen Dezell, Globe Staff

The Boston Globe
May 14, 2004, Friday ,THIRD EDITION

Andrea Martin pauses to straighten her lipstick and tousle her hair
in a mirror outside the Huntington Theatre Company rehearsal room.
Stepping inside, she slips into a purple sateen robe and talks
animatedly about playwrights, political leaders, and how much coffee
is on hand for the Saturday-morning rehearsal before curling up in
character on a pink velvet couch.

Martin moves languidly in and out of a series of poses, smiling
sweetly, scowling with grief, then training a seductive gaze on a
camera as she assumes the role of Serafina delle Rose, the exotic
flower who blooms at the center of Tennessee Williams’s play “The
Rose Tattoo.”

Known for comic roles that go as far back as “SCTV,” right up to
her recent turn as the cheerily demented Mrs. Siezmagraff in the
Huntington’s 2001 production of “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” she’s not
the first actress many would think of for a Williams heroine.

Martin says she pondered that fact herself, until she realized that
Serafina is a singular figure in an unusual play. Unlike the Williams
heroines Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” or Cathy in
“Suddenly, Last Summer,” Serafina is stunned – but not destroyed –
when tragedy strikes. She withers but reblooms in “The Rose Tattoo,”
a sprawling tragicomedy that has been called the playwright’s love
poem to the world, and the only Williams play that ends happily. It
opens in previews at the Huntington tonight.

Director Nicholas Martin (no relation) who oversaw “Betty’s Summer
Vacation” and is helming “Rose Tattoo,” harbors no concerns about
Andrea Martin’s first foray into Williams’s work. Indeed, he considers
her perfect for the part – and the play as he perceives it.

The smoldering Italian actress Anna Magnani was Williams’s inspiration
for Serafina, and Magnani immortalized the role when she starred
opposite Burt Lancaster in the 1955 film version.

The black-and-white movie was brooding and naturalistic, its emotions
serious and dark, says the director. “It translated the story Williams
told, without the poetry and heightened theatricality of what he
wrote for the stage,” Martin contends.

Martin hopes to re-create what he thinks Williams wanted: a Serafina
who is “passionate, dramatic – and funny.”

Just like Andrea Martin herself, he says.

Not many people realize just what a range the actress has, her director
points out.

An Emerson College graduate, Martin launched her life in the theater in
a legendary production of “Godspell” in Toronto, where she costarred
with Gilda Radner, Victor Garber, and other Toronto-based performers
she would work with on “SCTV.”

Martin earned a slew of nominations and two Emmy awards in the late
1970s for skits she wrote for “SCTV.” She also created such signature
characters as the leopard-coated TV station manager Edith Prickley,
who snorts at her own jokes.

As “SCTV” wrapped up, Martin won a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in
“My Favorite Year.” She has worked consistently in “straight” plays,
such as “Lips Together/ Teeth Apart,” opposite Nathan Lane, and at the
Williamstown Theatre Festival, where Nicholas Martin directed her in
“The Matchmaker” and “The Royal Family.”

Movie audiences discovered her in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” though
Martin also had small, vivid roles in “Wag the Dog” and “Hedwig and
the Angry Inch.” In addition, she has worked regularly in television
for two decades.

Martin researched, wrote, and performed a one-woman show, “Nude,
Totally Nude,” an autobiographical piece in which she explored her
Armenian heritage, her mother’s alcoholism, her own experiences as
a divorced single mother – and what it is like to be a middle-age
woman who is best known for being funny.

A plum role in Christopher Durang’s “Betty’s Summer Vacation” brought
her to the Huntington stage to work with her close friend and frequent
collaborator Nicholas Martin. Before the final curtain went down
on the play, the Martins promised to work together again on a piece
that would showcase the actress’s rich range of talents. But first
she went exploring.

To the surprise of her friends and colleagues, she took on the role
of Aunt Eller in Trevor Nunn’s revival of “Oklahoma!” Months after
romping through Durang’s hilarious satire, Martin was on Broadway,
spinning butter on a prairie.

“I really believed that if I could play that character, who is grounded
in the earth and the history of the United States – not the kind
of role I usually play – it would help me change the perception out
there and my own perception of what I can accomplish as a performer,”
she says. “And that’s what it did.”

Martin was nominated for a Tony for Aunt Eller. The role, along
with her appearance as Aunt Voula in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,”
significantly raised her public profile. More important, says Martin,
her success in “Oklahoma!” expanded her sense of possibility.

She’s ready, she says, to move beyond the realm of wise aunts and
enter the world of Serafina, one of the most passionate wives, mothers,
and lovers in modern American drama.

Set in an enclave of Italian immigrants on an island off the Gulf
Coast, “The Rose Tattoo” is dedicated to the playwright’s longtime
lover, Frank Merlo, an Italian-American who introduced Williams to
his ancestral home in Sicily, where the writer fell in love with the
place and its people.

Explains Martin: “He transplanted the characters, the sights and
sounds – the music, the folk magic, the passion – to this island near
New Orleans, and he brings it to life in the love story of Serafina.”

Serafina is the local seamstress who sews modern fashions for her
aspiring neighbors in her home. She lives and works surrounded by
talismans of romance, religion, and the proud tradition of the old
country, waiting eagerly each day for her handsome husband to return
from work and share an evening of very contemporary unbridled passion.

When he dies unexpecedly, she cloisters herself in a cottage with his
ashes. Only when her beautiful teenage daughter threatens to leave
is Serafina’s door thrown open to unwelcome visitors – including a
young man named Alvaro, who reminds Serafina of her husband.

It’s a part that calls on a range of experiences and emotions Martin
hasn’t often shown in one place.

“Andrea possesses a comic genius combined with a real acting ability
that you rarely find in someone that funny,” her director says. “I
think Williams might have used Andrea as a model for Serafina if he
had written the play for a later generation.”

Maureen Dezell can be reached [email protected]