The one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Tennessee Williams has brought a resurgence of his plays back to the New York stage, particularly his lesser-known works. Roundabout Theatre’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore starring Olympia Dukakis, The Wooster Group’s Vieux Carré, Mother of Invention’s, Austin Pendleton-directed Small Craft Warnings, and the Hudson Hotel site-specific staging of Green Eyes are but a few of the Williams’ revivals to hit the boards of the Big Apple in 2011.
Add to that list The New Group and Tectonic Theater Project co-production of Tennessee Williams’ One Arm, now playing a limited engagement at The Acorn on Theatre Row.
One Arm is based on a 1948 short story that was turned into an unproduced screenplay in 1967. As adapted for the stage utilizing both sources and directed by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project, 33 Variations, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), One Arm is a fascinating curiosity featuring a star-making performance by Claybourne Elder in the lead.
Set in 1967 mostly in Williams’ beloved French Quarter of New Orleans with quick stops in New York, Los Angeles, and other U.S cities, the story centers on Ollie Olsen, a champion boxer from the armed forces described as “lighting in leather” who loses his right arm in a car accident.
After losing the appendage, Ollie also loses his ability to feel emotional connections, becoming bitter and detached. Forced into hustling to survive, the hunky Elder commands the stage as the broken Apollo, possessing a boyish beauty and naivety that belies his smoldering sensuality.
Through a narrator and a series of flashbacks (both well-worn Williams motifs), the audience learns about Ollie pre- and post-tragedy. They also learn of the circumstances that landed him in prison, awaiting the death penalty for the murder of a porn director who pushed the damaged protagonist to violence.
All of the other actors in One Arm play multiple parts, from johns to pimps, prostitutes to porn stars. Larisa Polonsky, in particular, is outstanding in the female roles, jumping from saintly to sultry and back again most convincingly.
The industrial set by Derek McLane, luscious lighting by David Lander, and evocative sound design by Shane Rettig create a decidedly decadent environment for the play’s action, perfectly capturing the barren isolation of a prison cell, the dark shadows of a park late at night, and a hair-raising car ride that ends in catastrophe.
Fluid direction by Kaufman keeps the 90-minute show at a brisk pace, although there are a few moments that seem to drag on, making the short show seem longer than it actually is. And the elegant production, although gorgeous and engaging, unfortunately only accentuates the story’s flaws and faults, especially the role of the narrator.
But Tennessee Williams aficionados and fans of provocative theater alike will find much to savor in this ingenious and exquisite production of One Arm. And be sure to keep an eye on Mr. Claybourne Elder. He’s a talented young performer with a bright future — a true triple threat who made his New York debut at the Public Theater in Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show. He’s definitely a star in the making.