Tennessee Williams’s One Arm (New Group at Theatre Row) began life as a short story in the mid-1940s, which, two decades later, Williams tried to transform into a screenplay. Director Moisés Kaufman has now attempted to build it into a stage piece, using text from the story and several drafts of Williams’s never-filmed script. The result, always intriguing and visually arresting—David Lander’s poetically shifting lights deserve particular credit for the latter quality—never quite takes on sufficient depth to justify all the effort and care that’s gone into it.
What hampers Kaufman’s sensitive work is, most likely, what kept Williams’s screenplay from being realized on film in the first place. Its hero, Ollie Olsen (Claybourne Elder), is a burly, uneducated backwoods boy blessed with the symmetrical physique and angelic good looks of a classical statue, and also with a pugnacious streak that enables him, in the Navy, to become “light heavyweight [boxing] champion of the Pacific Fleet.”
A car accident while he’s out celebrating his victory truncates his triumph, losing him his right arm, and apparently discouraging the Pacific Fleet from showing any concern for its ex-champion. Drifting to New Orleans, Ollie becomes a male hustler, stolidly working the streets despite his resentful awareness that his missing limb adds, for some customers, an extra grotesque kick to his availability. When a particularly creepy and unscrupulous client pushes his resentment to the breaking point, Ollie winds up on death row; the piece is structured as a flashback from the night before his execution. In prison, he finally learns compassion, even a kind of love, for the men who’ve found solace in his sexual availability.
Williams apparently thought the looser late-’60s climate would make this terse, somber tale filmable, but his expansions tend to heighten its sensationalism rather than deepen its vision. Elder infuses his beautiful face and physique with a striking mix of toughness and wounded vulnerability, but the character never becomes wholly three-dimensional. Snippets of screenplay involving an impoverished writer who befriends Ollie in a shabby French Quarter rooming house echo better-realized scenes in Williams’s Vieux Carré, written around the same time. Kaufman’s tonal sense creates an effective atmosphere, jumping elegantly from scene to scene, but his textual editing here is uncertain; many scenes feel sketchy, and the supporting cast never takes on anything like Elder’s stature. Ultimately, the evening seems not so much armless as aimless.