Tennessee Williams’ characters are often broken people. Faded belles like Blanche DuBois, wounded birds like Laura Wingfield, and mentally scarred souls like Suddenly, Last Summer‘s Catharine — all damaged individuals who, for one reason or another, are no longer complete.
The protagonist of One Arm, a dark and powerful new play based on an unproduced screenplay by Williams, is, quite literally, incomplete. A Navy pugilist whose glory days are cut short when he loses his right arm in a car accident, Ollie Olsen (Claybourne Elder) is also emotionally crippled, internalizing the aggression he can no longer unleash in the ring and transforming it into self-loathing and a fury at his situation. Unable to find work elsewhere, he turns to hustling New Orleans’ Vieux Carré, picking up johns on street corners who, more often than not, find his physical condition an added turn-on. Ollie’s decline is framed by inevitable tragedy, as he sits on death row for murder, awaiting the electric chair.
It’s understandable how Williams’ script never made it to the big screen. Beyond the fact that the main character is missing a limb for the vast majority of time, the whole thing is febrile and messy, like much of the troubled playwright’s drug-tinged later work. Williams’ portrayal of the homosexual demimonde is outmoded, an overly lurid, shadowy depiction that aims mainly to shock an audience but has changed dramatically since the script was written. Moisés Kaufman, the man responsible for resurrecting One Arm, addresses this challenge by upping the theatricality, using inventive staging to remove any sense of reality. Instead, the audience seems to be tapping into someone else’s fitful, guilt-fueled nightmare.
Many things work, including Elder’s simmering performance and the daring conceit of having Ollie’s ”missing” arm in plain view the whole play. But some elements do not. Chief among the whiffs is Sean (Noah Bean), an extraneous character who acts as part-time narrator and full-time narrative device, spouting far too many on-the-nose observations about the play and its inevitable tumble towards fatalism. Aside from Ollie, in fact, most of the characters exist only as the briefest of outlines. Those hoping to hear the colloquial poetry of Williams’ best dialogue are likely to be disappointed. Like its main character, One Arm is undeniably imperfect, but it benefits from a provocative and smart production. B
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)