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‘One Arm’ Boxer Turned Hustler Reveals Early Williams: Review

Larisa Polonsky and Claybourne Elder in
Larisa Polonsky and Claybourne Elder in "One Arm" in New York. The production is an adaptation by Moises Kaufman of an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Photographer: Monique Carboni/Seven 17 PR via Bloomberg

June 13 (Bloomberg) -- Tennessee Williams completed his sexually raw short story, “One Arm,” in the summer of 1945, shortly after “The Glass Menagerie” opened on Broadway.

Moises Kaufman, whose “Laramie Project” remains a landmark of testimonial drama, has adapted the tale for the stage, in a perfectly meshed collaboration between his Tectonic Theater Project and The New Group.

Kaufman endows the story of a mutilated hustler’s final days on death row with the playwright’s palpably mournful mix of yearning and need, transforming a third-person narrative into a dimly lit naturalistic tone poem.

Set in the prison where sailor Ollie Olsen (Claybourne Elder, in a powerful and sensitive performance) will soon be sent to the electric chair, “One Arm” unfolds in flashbacks as a narrator (Noah Bean, impeccably reserved) sets the scene.

We will see Ollie with one arm strapped to his side, he tells us. After boxing his way to light heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet, a car crash robbed him of the limb.

Ollie sets out on a journey that takes him from shadowy corners of New Orleans to Times Square and eventually to a yacht off the Florida coast. He discovers that his maimed body gives him a special allure and he becomes a midnight cowboy, living by selling his body and his time to needy older men.

When he can take his degradation no more, he lashes out in the violent act that sends him to his death.

Sexual Identity

Williams may have couched his sexual identity in his early plays, but he exercised no such restraint in his fiction, where familiar themes of alienation, loss and hunger for love are given full measure. (He later tried, unsuccessfully, to turn the story into a screenplay.)

Kaufman and his designers, Derek McLane (set), David Lander (lighting) and Clint Ramos (costumes) capture that grim landscape on a spare set whose chief components are a bed and the piles of letters from former liaisons who have seen Ollie’s picture in the newspapers and furtively expressed sympathy.

A last-minute visit from an equally lonely divinity student (Todd Lawson, another finely wrought performance) offers Ollie a redemption of a kind that eluded Williams his entire life.

Through July 2 at 410 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.thenewgroup.org Rating: ***1/2


What the Stars Mean:
****        Excellent
***         Good
**          Average
*           Not So Good
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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