Saturday, June 4, 2011

Tennessee Williams' One Arm **

In 1946 Tennessee Williams wrote a short story about an 18-year-old Navy boxing champion who loses an arm in an auto accident, turns to hustling when he can't find a job, and ends up on death row for killing a client in a fit of rage. In the mid-'60s Williams made the story into a screenplay which he periodically tried to get produced, without success. It's not hard to imagine why: an actor may be willing to do many things to get a part, but losing an arm is not one of them. Moises Kaufman has now adapted the screenplay for the stage under the aegis of his Tectonic Theater Project as well as The New Group. Kaufman's previous work has always interested me, so I was curious to see what he would do with One Arm. Claybourne Elder (is that a name worthy of a character on a soap opera or what?) makes Ollie Olsen so striking that it is easy to understand the mesmerizing effect he had on his clients. The matter of the missing arm is cleverly handled by strapping Elder's right arm to his torso so it is not usable. Clearly, this would not work in a movie. The rest of the fine cast (Noah Bean, Todd Lawson, KC Comeaux, Steven Hauck, Christopher McCann, Greg Pierotti and Larisa Polonsky) all play multiple characters. Polonsky is especially good in three very different roles. Derek McLane's stark set and David Lander's harsh lighting convincingly suggest Olson's cell on death row. In a series of flashbacks, we gradually learn how he got there. At play's end there is a coup de theatre that is clever but ultimately pointless. Although I found the adaptation sporadically interesting, I still think Williams - and Kaufman - should have left well enough alone. The short story is a classic and loses rather than gains impact from being blown up into a screenplay or a theater piece.

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