Wednesday, June 8, 2011

theatre review TENNESSEE WILLIAMS' ONE ARM, Off Broadway, June 7

Tennessee Williams' name alone conjures up images of sexual tension and steamy nights in the South.   His unproduced screenplay based on his 1948 short story One Arm has been adapted into a one act play by Moises Kaufman full of everything you'd imagine from a Williams tale.  The play opens Off Broadway tomorrow night and runs through July 2nd.  Though the short story is set in the late 30's,  Kaufman has updated the play to 1967.  The plot follows a young man, Ollie, who had once been a light heavyweight champion boxer, but who lost an arm in an auto accident.  To him, losing his arm is basically losing his manhood, and unable to find anyone to hire a man with one arm, he turns to street hustling to make money.

The play is told in flashback, beginning with Ollie in prison, on death row, for a murder he committed, but we don't know exactly what transpired to get him to where he is now.  He starts receiving letters, many with no return addresses on them, from people he barely remembers but who remember him.  These people saw his picture in the paper and the letters all say they hope he is innocent.  The flashback scenes take us to his encounters with many of these letter writers as well as to the events that got him in prison.  The play is narrated by someone whom I believe we are supposed to assume is a character based on a young Tennessee Williams.   He begins by saying "One Arm, an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams" to set the tone.  But I'm on the fence for the use of a narrator, as while it is effective to give us clarification into what Ollie is feeling or thinking, the way the narrator also spoke in film language, like "close-up" and "dissolve" since he is carrying around the screenplay, doesn't really jive with the staging, and sometimes the writing of the narration seems a bit clunky.

Claybourne Elder
I did like how the play unfolded, slowly giving you more information about Ollie's life as well as how sometimes the past and present blended together.  But while we quickly understand that Ollie is basically unable to have an emotional connection with anyone, we never really understand why that is.  We never get Ollie's back story before he lost his arm, except a brief boxing scene and the scene before the car crash.  He keeps reminding everyone he meets that he only has one arm, but he also knows, or believes at least, that the "John's" that hire him are hiring him for this "oddity," so in some way he has found a way to work his handicap to his advantage.  We see many instances of the same type of scene, with Ollie reading one of the letters he received and having a flashback to him being unemotionally attached to the man who hired him who wrote the letter.  Ollie then reminding them he only has one arm and telling them that he knows that is why they hired him and then Ollie sitting in his prison cell realizing he was simply remembering this encounter.  Now I know that repetition is a good way to memorize things, but we don't need to be hit over the head so many times to get the fact that Ollie is a "straight" man having sex with men for money who find themselves emotionally attached to Ollie even though he has no feelings for them.  And while Claybourne Elder was extremely effective in portraying the various emotions Ollie is confronted with, the play's two dimensional writing of the lead character gives us only a small understanding why he meant so much to the men he had sex with.  Elder is a nice looking man, with the lean body of a boxer, so we can understand the physical connection the men had with him, but since the play is all about emotion, Kaufman needs to figure out a way to more effectively work that into the play to truly make this into the moving piece that it is trying desperately to be.

There is still much to like in this play, including the encounter that Ollie has with an older wealthy man played by Steven Hauck as well as the last 10 or 15 minutes of the 80 minute piece where everything comes together.  This last sequence, when a divinity student visits Ollie in prison after seeing his picture in the paper, provides the catalyst for Ollie to understand what he's been missing.  Todd Lawson is spot on as the sexually confused student and the connection he and Elder have is fairly intense at times.  In this short sequence, Ollie realizes why the men he slept with had such a strong connection with him and how he has never had the same type of feeling for anyone.

Kaufman, who also directed this production, has assembled a fairly effective group of actors to bring the play to life, with many of them playing multiple roles.  I especially liked Larisa Polonsky, who, as the only female in the cast gets to play a wide range of characters.   Kaufman's direction seamlessly blends the past with the present and he effectively uses the stark and industrial setting to imagine various locales throughout Ollie's journey.

Kaufman has been working on his adaption for several years now and I think he needs to spend a little more time working out the kinks and fleshing out the lead character.

Official Site for the show

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