nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 7, 2011
NARRATOR: "One Arm," an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams. FADE IN: CLOSEUP ON OLLIE.
These are the opening lines of Moises Kaufman's new adaptation of One Arm, presented at the Acorn Theatre by The New Group. When I heard them—delivered into a microphone by Noah Bean in the role of the Narrator—I pretty much instantly recoiled. I thought: gee, if this is a screenplay, why aren't we watching a film?
That question never gets satisfactorily answered, unfortunately; in fact, if Kaufman's production proves anything, it's that "One Arm," which is one of Tennessee Williams's finest short stories, probably doesn't belong in any other medium. The ways that Williams seems to have attempted to open up this sad, lovely tale of beauty mutilated detract from rather than add to the work's effectiveness. And the distancing deconstructionist approach that Kaufman uses here—sometimes realizing the piece as a conventionally staged play and other times injecting narration and other alienating tactics—points up what's problematic rather than emphasizing what's wonderful in this never-made movie that Williams was trying to write.
One Arm tells the story of Ollie, a beautiful young man who is a boxer ("the light heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet"). He loses his arm in an accident right after gaining that title, and after he leaves the hospital he drifts from town to town across America, earning his keep as a prostitute. When we meet Ollie, just a couple of years after the accident, he's in prison, on Death Row, waiting to be executed for a crime whose nature we will eventually discover. His only company in jail is the well wishes of hundreds of men who knew him and, seeing his photo in the newspaper, have written to him in prison. A visit from a divinity student offers Ollie a chance at what he sees as possible redemption.
The script that Kaufman uses here is, he tells us, derived from several drafts of the screenplay that Williams wrote in the late 1960s. (The original story was written in 1943 and that earlier time period rings truer than 1967, which is when this version takes place.) Ollie's history is fleshed out in flashbacks while he broods in his cell, including encounters with two archetypal Williams characters, a self-hating old queen and a repressed spinster, neither of which adds much thematically. In fact, the more we see of Ollie's past, the less we understand him; as written here and as played by Claybourne Elder, he's a cipher, lacking the strange charisma that enables him to survive so many cold months on the streets.
The only relationship of Ollie's that's really well-defined is with the prison guard, played with nasty menace by Christopher McCann. This aspect of the play so overpowers all of the others that One Arm appears to be a tract protesting the inhumane conditions in our nation's penal system. I don't actually believe that that was Williams's intent, however.
No, I think that Williams, at least in his original story, was exploring the effects of ugly defacement of pure beauty. Ollie's mutilation (as he himself terms it) is both actual and metaphorical. This wistful and ephemeral notion gets lost in the muddled screenplay/script and in the literal-minded staging that Kaufman provides.
Six actors (McCann, Todd Lawson, KC Comeaux, Steven Hauck, Greg Pierotti, and Larisa Polonsky) take on multiple roles to tell the story of One Arm. Polonsky is spectacularly impressive, believably portraying the middle-aged spinster, a nurse, and a kindly porn actress.
And there is of course that imitable Williams dialogue, beautifully spoken by the ensemble and sitting on the ear in that unique off-kilter way that characterizes the best work of this master poet/playwright.
But One Arm, on the stage by way of the abortive screenplay attempts, is far from Williams at his best.