It is our good fortune that Moises Kaufman has adapted for the stage Tennessee Williams’ short story and subsequent screenplay “One Arm.” Lauded as both writer and director (“The Laramie Project,” “33 Variations,” and “Gross Indecency,” among others) and director of the current Broadway play “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo,” Kaufman has given an intensified stage life to Williams’s short story about a young naive sailor from the midwest (“The new light heavy-weight champion of the Pacific fleet”) who becomes a male prostitute after he loses his arm in a car accident caused by his drunken sailor buddy.
Like the short story, it is a short play lasting only 80 minutes, but it is empowered not only by a text that is filled with the kind of lyrical prose that defined Williams at his best, but has also enabled Kaufman to create a structure and style that is undeniably his own.
Williams authored a fair amount of the greatest American dramatic literature. If he never wrote any full-length plays other than “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he would have a secure place among the world’s great dramatists. That he also wrote over 70 one-act plays, two novels, and a collection of short stories leaves much of the canon comparatively ripe for adaptation.
Written in 1942, but not published until 1948, “One Arm” evidently pierced deeply enough into Williams’s mind that he was not able to leave it alone, like many of his plays. He wrote a screenplay based on his story in 1967, but the film was never made. Several drafts were discovered by Kaufman and dramaturgs Jimmy Maize and David Schultz. Their collective result may not have produced the most completely incisive and satisfying exploration into whys and therefores of the ex-boxer Ollie Olsen’s short tragic life, but the circumstances that find him on death row awaiting execution for murder are covered with commendable sensitivity and dramatic invention.
The screenplay is used briefly as an opening device for the play. A narrator (Noah Bean) who reappears occasionally supplies a narrative through-line also appears as Sean, an impoverished writer who lives in the same dilapidated rooming house as Ollie in the French Quarter (shades of Williams’ biographical “Vieux Carre”). In the play’s opening, the acting company, some of whom are serving as technicians on the movie set, depart as the narrator speaks, “Dissolve to interior,” leaving only Ollie in the dismal “bird cage,” a cell with no windows reserved for those about to be executed. A nasty guard (Christopher McCann) brings Ollie a pack of letters.
This is a portrait of a bitter young man whose loneliness and emotional disconnect from the world would seem on the surface to have served no one and no purpose. Yet, there is a strange state of salvation and a sense of worth that comes to Ollie in the form of letters from the countless strangers he has encountered during his three years on the street.
Under Kaufman’s skillful direction, a terrific cast is headed by Claybourne Elder as Ollie. Through flashbacks, we see the gradually despairing Ollie become more callous and embittered as well as increasingly disgusted with his life as he turns tricks for a living. The encounters, many of which are gratifyingly staged without resorting to prurient exploitation, are distilled in short scenes that give the cast, other than Elder, opportunities for double or triple role-playing.
Elder, who made his New York debut at the Public Theater in Sondheim’s “Road Show,” has the lean muscular physique of an athlete. For most of the play he wears a tank top and black chino jeans. To establish the loss of a limb, his right arm is strapped to his side, except during the scenes before the accident in which we see his prowess in the ring, a particularly well-staged/choreographed scene. The peak of his superb performance, one that has been a roller-coaster ride between boldness and helplessness, rage and remorse, comes with a lengthy and illuminating monologue that begins, “I been all over this country and gotten to know many people. I’ve forgotten most ’em but they’ve remembered me.”
Although most of Ollie’s Johns prove to be as desperately needy as he, so does a nurse (Larisa Polonsky), who picks him up in the French Quarter but who turns on him when he admits his profession. Polonsky also gets to do a little sensual wiggling and writhing as a minimally clad dancer in the club that Ollie and his buddies (Todd Lawson and KC Comeaux) visit before the accident. Ollie’s one and only and fateful act of violence finds him unable to contain his rage with a smarmy yachtsman (McCann) who has procured him for a porno film to be shot on board with a seasoned female star, Lila (Polonsky).
The play’s most provocative scene, however, comes near the end. In it, Lawson plays a nervous divinity student who tries to bring Ollie salvation, but only succeeds in becoming aware of his own suppressed desires. The turning point for Ollie’s redemption as he faces death comes as he is becomes receptive and responsive to the warmth and compassion expressed by others in their letters.
Without having read the original screenplay, I can only surmise by the tone of the current text, generously dosed with as much graceful lyricism as it is with gritty humor, that it reflects Williams in the best of his work. It is to the adapter’s credit that there is no need for graphic sex, but rather sadly poetic displays of physical affection. Designer Derek McLane’s black and dank setting is effective in suggesting — beside the cell — various locations across the U.S.
If there is a common thread that binds all of Williams’ works it is the plea that his physically flawed and psychologically damaged heroes and heroines be seen through the eyes of those who have the ability to be compassionate, understanding, and forgiving. Within the Williams canon there are innumerable examples of the writer exploring, if not completely knowing, himself through both his male and female characters.
There have been some changes from the original story like changing the Ollie’s last name from Winemiller (destined to be used by Williams for his heroine turned prostitute Alma Winemiller in “Summer and Smoke”) and setting the play in 1967 instead of pre-World War II, but nothing radically alters Williams’ impassioned perspective or ultimate purpose.
This collaboration between the New Group & Tectonic Theater Project is a fine example of what a talented director can do with a splendid piece of literature. One cannot leave the theater without being haunted by the legacy that Williams left or by a line such as this: “Death has never been much in the way of completion.”
“One Arm,” The New Group @ Theater Row (the Acorn Theater), 410 West 42nd Street. $60.00 plus $1.25 restoration fee. 212-239-6200.