Theater of the Sublime: Another Tennessee Hustler

We've been slightly battered over the past decades into believing that if a Tennessee Williams play wasn't already part of our beloved theatrical canon, it was a lesser work. In recent years, though, thanks to daring companies such as The New Group and Tectonic Theater Project, we've learned the problem was a conglomeration of lesser critics (e.g. John Simon), not so much a lesser genius.

Proving the point is Moises Kaufman's brilliant adaptation and direction of a neglected Williams short story, which had been turned into an unproduced screenplay and then forgotten. "One Arm," which was released in a collection of short stories back in 1967, has been kept in print ever since by New Directions Publishing under the exquisite leadership of one Barbara Epler.

The story, however, receives no mention in Donald Spoto's biography, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams (1985) and only one in Williams's own tell-all, Memoirs (1975).

After the success of The Glass Menagerie (1945), a distraught Williams travelled to Mexico, where he met a "friendly" Leonard Bernstein and a rich man who threw weekly all-male parties. At these Saturday-night soirees, the playwright learned to "follow," which was necessary because the "Mexicans always had that macho complex and I was also a rather short young man to be leading men, so I learned to follow quite well."

When not cutting a rug, the playwright began an affair with a young student he met on a park bench. The "darkly handsome boy" spoke little English and Williams no Spanish, which made for great happiness, for as we all no know, communication is the death of most promising relationships.

A blissful Williams noted, "The altitude of Mexico City gave me a sort of false animation and I wrote a great deal, including the short story 'One Arm' and perhaps a bit more Blanche, and I was very happy with the student. I have never liked hairy bodies, and being half Indian, he was very smooth skinned and if I hadn't been restless -- who knows?"

Well, one does know now that while "One Arm" might have once been too risqué for the reading public (in the '40s) and for Hollywood (in the '60s), the matchlessly written work has found a new life on the stage and will now hopefully never depart.

Narrated by the engaging Noah Bean, the early scenes switch back and forth between Ollie Olsen's jail cell on Death Row, the chilled streets of New Orleans, and his army days. Olsen (Claybourne Elder), a beautiful, naïve, and nearly illiterate young man, was a prize-winning boxer until he lost his arm in a car accident. Now dismissed from military life, with little funds, he hungrily sits on park benches wondering where his next meal will come from. A discerning gent approaches the lad and quickly educates him about his market worth. With a striking body, a face out of Caravaggio, and a damaged limb, Ollie is a hot commodity. Prime hustler material.

But just how far will Ollie go? Other than no kissing, are there other limitations?

Switch back to the jail cell, where Ollie is receiving hundreds of letters: most from men who recall being his customers, others from newspaper readers who can't believe someone with such an angelic face could have committed such a horrid crime. But what was this despicable transgression? For that you must await the final moments.

Until then you wind up accompanying the once-heterosexual Ollie on his journey across the country, where he learns to allow others to love him, but without himself gaining the ability to love back. Maybe that's the real meaning of his loss of limb.

Another in Williams's collection of emotionally stunted American über-males, Ollie benefits from being embodied by Claybourne Elder, an actor who doesn't seem that wanting when compared to the likes of Brando, Newman, or Gazzara. And when he eventually removes his tank top to seduce a closeted divinity student (a convincing Todd Lawson), Mr. Elder's torso proves equal to his superior thespian skills.

The whole cast, in fact, with the annoying exception of a one-note prison guard (Christopher McCann), is letter perfect, with especially sterling work from Larisa Polonsky, who holds her own in several diverse parts.

But the real kudos must go to Moisés Kaufman, who in the past has directed Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, I Am My Own Wife, and The Laramie Project. His vision has once again transformed a solid work into a greater one. If Tennessee were alive and rewriting his life, One Arm would now no doubt garner a whole bunch of pages, if not a chapter. - Brandon Judell

brandon.jpgMr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Intro to Mass Communications" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).

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