When all else fails, bring back the works of Tennessee Williams. Celebrating his centennial birthday year across the globe in revivals large and small, they’re bringing back everything but his grocery list. It’s the kind of attention he would have loved, but I doubt if the world’s most famously tortured playwright would care for the dull off-Broadway mounting of his rarely seen melodrama One Arm. And as sure as Sunday morning follows Saturday night, I feel certain he would frown on the flaccid direction by the criminally overrated Moises Kaufman.
For one thing, One Arm is not a play. It’s a grueling and graphic short story, sordid even by Tennessee Williams standards, which was first published in 1948, then adapted as a screenplay in 1967 for a film Mr. Williams hoped would someday interest Marlon Brando. The movie was never produced, for obvious reasons. Set in a grim cell on Death Row where a mutilated gay hustler named Ollie Olsen spends his final days waiting for the long march to the electric chair, the sordid story is related in the kind of flashbacks that work better on film. Told with the aid of an intrusive narrator I kept wanting to just go away, Ollie’s lurid journey from naïve Arkansas sailor to U.S. Navy boxing champion who loses his arm in a drunken automobile accident to a freaky, well-endowed prostitute takes him from the New Orleans French Quarter to a male brothel in Times Square to a yacht where a pornographer relishes in dishing out the ultimate degradation using Ollie’s stump as a sex toy. At last driven to the dark side of insanity, the howling Ollie commits the murder that lands him in prison, longing for redemption and praying for salvation. A movie would have turned millions of people away, but it would have been fraught with cinematic possibilities. As a staged movie script, this one hour and 20 minute work (without intermission) is plagued by numerous problems that cannot be solved on a tiny stage the size of a large 47-cent stamp.
My chief objection is that I honestly do not think One Arm can ever be staged with maximum impact as long as the title role presents a casting hurdle that is insurmountable. As written, the character of Ollie must be a hunk with a camera-ready physique … who cannot have two arms. You can get away with a lot of artifice onscreen, but when the actor weeps and whines and boils and screams with one arm tied behind his back, illusions are shattered. I know it sounds preposterous, but there must be a brilliant, talented and appealing paraplegic somewhere whose acting career has been destroyed by the loss of an appendage, but how would a casting director find one? (Think Harold Russell, who lost two arms in the war and went on to win two Oscars for The Best Years of Our Lives.) Claybourne Elder, who stars in the current production, is handsome and intense, but with his right arm tied to his side by a strap, the illusion is blurred and the tragedy numbed. When he tucks the arm inside his shirt and ties the sleeve, it’s more effective, but most of the time he’s shirtless and vulnerable. What’s a poor actor to do but say the lines and hope for the best? Unfortunately, the lines aren’t always worth saying. A bad tamale served to starving hustlers in the Vieux Carre is “rat meat and pepper” and gay icon Marlene is “the inimitable Dietrich—imperishable as the sky.” No doubt Tennessee Williams would freshen up some of the dated writing if he knew anyone was planning a surprise production of a work he never intended for the stage in the first place.
Worse, the character of Ollie is an unredeemable victim. All of the protagonists in Williams’s plays are, to some extent, victims. But they have built-in survival skills that make them tough, desirable and unforgettable. Blanche DuBois still depends on the kindness of strangers, Brick and Maggie will save their marriage by siring an heir, the castrated Chance Wayne still has love. Ollie has nothing left but the electric chair. The familiar Tennessee Williams themes are here—loss, alienation, spiritual yearning, loneliness and the desperation for compassion in a world of cruelty and degradation—but salvation is denied. One last gesture of hope and forgiveness arrives in a scene near the end, when Ollie reaches out for the tenderness he craves from a visiting seminary student. Finally allowing himself to feel the rapture of human touch he has sadly missed, one forbidden kiss provides a rare moment of Williams poetry that is so moving it makes up for a lot of the pouty, self-indulgent torture that precedes it. But the contact is brief, before Ollie is again rejected forever. The ending is a total downer and the night I attended, the applause was muted and forced, utterly lacking in enthusiasm.
The actors are perfunctory if not mesmerizing. Derek McLane’s sparse set is a grim landscape of prison austerity—one iron bed and piles of letters from Ollie’s fans and sex partners, feigning sympathy. Shane Rettig’s music and sound design add mood shifts that help establish changes of location. Clearly, this is not a work about passionate relationships, but Tennessee Williams was incapable of writing anything cold, emotionless or heartless, and Moises Kaufman makes no effort to allow even the most covert or unspoken feelings to emerge through the mist of misery. I always leave the plays he directs feeling lousy and cheated. I hated his much lauded Laramie Project, a dossier on the universal heartache surrounding the homophobic Matthew Shepard murders in Wyoming that managed to turn a national calamity into a pseudo-intellectual town meeting. Who could forget the angst that permeated 33 Variations, the awful play he also wrote, which perpetrated Jane Fonda’s ill-advised return to Broadway. Or, for that matter, the lethal tedium of the pretentious Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which is still running on Broadway, despite being ignored by the Tonys. His success remains something of a puzzle to me.
One Arm is a curiosity piece, most likely to appeal to devoted Williams addicts who insist on experiencing everything ever created by a gifted, prolific playwright who was (and is) one of the legendary cornerstones of the American theatre. It is not likely to enthrall the masses. He once told me, “Baby, I slept through the 60’s.” One Arm was transposed to the screenplay currently on view at the Acorn Theatre on 42nd Street during that barren and creatively fallow period. Devoid of the lyricism that defines his work as a whole, it is a work in progress that will never be completed. Still, I guess second-rate Tennessee Williams is better than no Tennessee Williams at all.