7:37 am Jun. 10, 2011
Dusting off the little-remembered works of Tennessee Williams is a tricky business. Almost all of the many plays revived this season in honor of the playwright’s 100th birthday are from late in his career, written in the years he was slowly drinking himself to death.
They’re hardly the work of a writer at the top of his game.
But Williams wrote the short story “One Arm” in 1950, when he was just hitting his stride. Written the year after he made a dazzling debut on Broadway with The Glass Menagerie, it concerns a former boxer named Ollie who supports himself as a street hustler after a disfiguring car accident. The story was clearly very personal for Williams, who later turned it into a screenplay.
That the screenplay remained in a drawer isn’t surprising—the movie versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and his other works were scrubbed clean of even oblique references to homosexuality. No producer at the time would have taken a chance on a film that tackled gay issues head on. But luckily it was rediscovered by Moisés Kaufman, writer of Gross Indecency and The Laramie Project, who set about putting it on stage.
Receiving its New York premiere in a co-production by the New Group and the Tectonic Theater Project, Kaufman’s adaptation One Arm is a thrillingly original work. At times it feels like the film that was never made, staged so effectively by Kaufman himself that you can almost see the dissolves and close-ups and fades. A boxing match early on seems to cut from close-ups of one man swinging to the other ducking, all because Kaufman has placed them in different parts of the stage.
Other times One Arm is more like a reading of the original short story, as the narrator (a role subtly handled by Noah Bean) departs from reading the stage directions and launches into lyrical passages describing the despair and desperation of the characters. As beautiful as these sections can be, they are also the least effective, from a dramatic standpoint. You find your mind wandering a bit, anxious to hear more from the characters and less about them.
One Arm begins with Ollie Olsen (Claybourne Elder, in what is likely to be a career-making role) alone in the “birdcage,” a prison cell reserved for death-row inmates. Through a series of flashbacks we see him win the light heavyweight boxing champion while in the Navy, only to have his dreams dashed after the loss of an arm. His “mutilation,” as Ollie calls it, is suggested by having the actor’s arm held tightly to his side by a leather strap. It’s a simple but effective device, making Ollie’s loss clearly evident.
Nobody will hire a one-armed man, so Ollie makes ends meet by selling his body on a street corner in New Orleans. In this line of work, his disfigurement is not necessarily a liability. “Johns like a mutilation,” he snaps at one customer, “as long as it’s above the belt.” Ollie drifts around the country before alighting in New York, where working for a pimp named Cherry (Greg Pierotti, in one of his several roles) is more lucrative. It’s also more humiliating, and his life spins out of control.
Ollie’s own sexuality is never clear, although tells his customers he won’t kiss them because he’s “not gay trade.” At the same time, his encounters with women – a roadhouse stripper, a blue-movie performer, and a frustrated romantic who picks him up on the street, all skillfully played by Larisa Polonsky – are strangely tentative. He’s callous and sometimes cruel to the men who pay him for his time, only to realize when hundreds of them write him kind letters when he’s in prison that there was meaning in what he thought were a series of meaningless sexual encounters.
Williams would write about gay men in later plays like Small Craft Warning, but by that point he seemed to have soured on the idea that two men could share an emotional bond. But at the time he wrote "One Arm," he saw men struggling to make connections that might seem fleeting, but have a deep resonance. Kaufman underscores this point by making it clear that the men who pick up Ollie, ostensibly for sex, are most hungry for an embrace.
In turning his attention to "One Arm," Kaufman is doing much more than dusting it off. As he did with Gross Indecency and The Laramie Project, he is taking existing source material and weaving it together into something exhilarating. The original story about the boxer’s life is still at the center, but Kaufman also makes it about a struggling writer’s fumbling search for a subject and an established writer’s frustrated desire to tell his own story. The fact that the screenplay was never produced, announced in the play’s first line, becomes part of the tragedy.
The entire production team seems to have been inspired by Kaufman’s work. Derek McLane’s set is one of his most accomplished, a black, brooding space that transforms instantly from a prison cell to a dive bar to a car on a lonely stretch of highway. He’s ably assisted by cinematic sweep of David Lander’s lighting and Shane Rettig’s sound design. One scene that takes place under a skylight on a rainy night uses all their skills in equal measure, and the collaboration is dazzling. The costumes by Clint Ramos effectively call to mind the period, especially in the fashions for the women, without seeming too over the top.
Kaufman, who has worked on this project for the last decade with his Tectonic Theater Project, has done more than uncover a lost masterpiece by Williams. He’s also created one of his own, one that is likely to stand beside Gross Indecency as one of his best works.
The New Group and Tectonic Theater Project’s production of One Arm is playing at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St. Tickets are $60 and are available at 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.
More by this author:
- Nathan Lane runs away with 'The Nance'
- 'Hands on a Hardbody' is a challenging experience for everyone