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Thursday, June 09, 2011

One Arm


Claybourne Elder, Todd Lawson
(photo: Monique Carboni)
The New Group & Tectonic Theater Project's ponderous production of Tennessee Williams' One Arm, adapted from his unproduced screenplay and directed for the stage by Mois├ęs Kaufman, does little to demonstrate Williams' genius, compassion, and humor. Granted, this is far from Williams' best work, and the genius and humor are in fairly short supply. But the story does feature compassion, along with some interesting characters and a reasonably interesting story--theoretically, anyway. Here they are hidden by an uninteresting, unnecessarily one-dimensional darkness.

Ollie Olsen (Claybourne Elder) is a boxer. It fact, he is light-heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet, as he mentions frequently. Ollie loses his arm in a gallingly stupid accident and finds himself without both his trade and his sense of self. Having few options, Ollie becomes a street corner hustler. He believes that some of his Johns are turned on by his injury, which infuriates him. Whether he is homosexual or not is left unspecified and is probably unimportant. What is important is that he is a ticking time bomb, detached from his kinder feelings and seething with anger.

In directing One Arm, Kaufman has chosen to retain the film structure. A narrator (Noah Bean) reads scenery descriptions and stage directions, and hanging lamps play the role of Klieg lights on a set. The narrator and the rest of the cast share a flat, affect-less tone, which keeps the audience at arm's length. Few scenes are emotionally compelling. Ollie is so cold and whiny that one can't help but occasionally think, "Okay, you've had a tough time--get over it!" As for the other characters, most do not come across as distinct, believable people, and the prison guard and the porn director are both out of a bad B movie. Only the Johns have genuine humanity, revealed in their fear of approaching the beautiful Ollie and their heartbreaking gratitude at being able to touch him.

Overall, One Arm doesn't work as anything other than an uncompelling museum piece. Kaufman's odd direction is clearly an artistic decision, but not, I think, an effective one. Stylization is one thing; freezing out the audience is another.

(press ticket, 6th row on the aisle)

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