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One Arm

Moisés Kaufman's emotionally rich adaptation of an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams receives a thoroughly engaging production. logo
Claybourne Elder and Todd Lawson in One Arm
(© Monique Carboni)
An unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams serves as the basis for The New Group and Tectonic Theater Project's thoroughly engaging production of One Arm, now at Theatre Row. The piece began life as a short story, first published in 1948. Williams wrote the screenplay version in 1967, and director Moisés Kaufman has utilized several different drafts of the never-made movie's script to craft his compact, yet emotionally rich adaptation.

The story centers on Ollie Olsen (Claybourne Elder), a boxer and sailor from Arkansas who loses an arm in an automobile accident and becomes a male prostitute in order to make a living. The narrative skips back and forth in time, but is dominated by Ollie's time in prison, where he sits on death row. There, he receives numerous letters from men with whom he had slept but had never thought much about afterwards. They have a cumulative effect on him that leads to a fraught encounter with a divinity student in the prison cell, although the outcome of that meeting is not what either man envisioned.

Elder delivers a broodingly intense performance that captures Ollie's shifting moods. Behind his sometimes-aloof façade, there is always a hint of both anger and vulnerability that achieves full expression late in the play. The actor's handsome features and chiseled physique are also perfectly suited to the character, who is described more than once as looking as if he were a piece of "antique sculpture." The missing arm is theatrically realized by using a belt to tie Elder's right arm to his side and letting it hang limp beside him.

Noah Bean serves as the narrator within the play and takes on the role of Sean, a writer who befriends Ollie in New Orleans, and whom the hustler asks to write up his life story. Bean and Elder share such terrific chemistry in their one scene together that it makes you wonder about their two characters' relationship, which is largely unexplored within the play.

The remainder of the company -- KC Comeaux, Steven Hauck, Todd Lawson, Christopher McCann, Greg Pierotti, and Larisa Polonsky -- all play multiple roles and do so ably. Lawson is particularly effective as the divinity student who is drawn to visit Ollie in prison after seeing his picture in the paper, while Polonsky makes a good impression as a woman hired to co-star with the one-armed hustler in a pornographic film.

Derek McLane's scenic design evokes the prison setting most prominently, but it is versatile enough to also suggest other environments. He's helped out by Shane Rettig's original music and sound design, which provides specific aural effects (such as the punches thrown in the boxing ring) to immediately establish locale and atmosphere. Also making a positive contribution is David Lander's moody lighting design, which in one instance requires a couple of actors to hold lighting instruments to create a striking directional effect.

The play hews quite closely to the basic narrative trajectory of Williams' original short story, which was in many ways ahead of its time. Some of the dialogue and narrated passages are also closely modeled after those found in the published version of the work, with certain segments lifted verbatim. There are times when the use of the narrator feels superfluous, but more often than not, Williams' phrasing shines through with a lyrical quality that is achingly beautiful.

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