Tennessee Williams's Dark, Disturbing Play About a Crippled Hustler
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
410 Theater Row
New York, N.Y.
One Arm, a play adapted by Moises Kaufman from a 1944 Tennessee Williams short story, takes place on a dark and forlorn set and is a dark and forlorn play. It’s the story of a champion military boxer, a moody brawler who loses an arm in an auto accident and then stumbles through life, winding up as a gay street hustler on death row.
One Arm was turned into a movie screenplay in 1967 by Williams, but he was unable to sell it. You can see why. This is a story about gay life in New Orleans and New York in the ‘40s. There was no film market for that kind of work in that era. In a screen world where sex between men and women was taboo, there was certainly no casting call for gay street hustlers. The country has opened up in the past fifty years, however, and Kaufman has bravely tackled One Arm, a story that probes humanity on several levels.
First, this is the story of a tough and powerful boxer, a light heavyweight, who lost a promising pro career in what was a very large world of boxing in the 1940s because of the loss of his arm. Second, it’s the story of a street hustler whose charm is not his muscular, chiseled body, but the half an arm that dangles at his side. He’s a freak and that, and little else, is his attraction to johns. He even attracts a pornographic movie producer, who makes a movie focusing on butchered arm.
One Arm is an interesting look at gay life in the ‘40s, tucked away deeply in the closet, its intertwining relationship with military sport, and not least the inner struggle of a man trying to come to terms with his homosexuality and his physical loss. It is at times moving and persuasive, at times very leaden and slow, but at all times very disturbing.
Ollie, the boxer and main character of the play, is lost without the ring or the military and, after several years, becomes a street hustler in New Orleans, hanging out with a string of prostitutes who line the street all night, soliciting just about anyone. Street sex to them is an art, a science. Ollie enjoys the life, the only life he can live, and sort of understands that part of his charm is his missing arm.
The missing arm is a problem in the play. Actor Claybourne Elder who plays Ollie, has two arms. One is obviously missing because throughout much of the play a shirt sleeve is tied up, hollow. During the rest of the play, though, the audience is told to think that it is gone, even though we see it, albeit tied to his stomach with a strap. The ploy only works when he wears his shirt—he should keep it on.
Ollie’s arrival in New York goes well and meets many rich johns, who wine and dine him and give him a lot of money for his services. He gets into X-rated films and meets a porno actress with a heart of gold. He’s angry in New Yor, though, angry that men want him because he is different—disabled. Men don’t love him; they lust for him, and only for his broken body. Ollie can’t handle the pressure and winds up in a prison’s death row, where we first meet him.
The play has some wonderfully dark moments and some brilliant acting by the stern and recalcitrant Ollie, full of hate for the lonely life he has to live. His verbal and physical clashes with people are fraught with tension. Others in the play are intrigued by him, and his arm, but also frightened. He is a physically dangerous man, and a troubled man with a short fuse.
The Williams play is a good one, but has its flaws. There is a narrator and he presents the story to the audience and offering analysis from time to time. Sometimes the narrator gets in the way, though, and that causes the play to stumble.
Another problem the play has, a continuous problem, is that neither Williams or Kaufman connected the dots in the plot or the character development. As an example, the play suggests that the boxer, Ollie, has no future without his pugilistic power. Mastery of the ring is his lone skill. Yet it is never discussed in the play or suggested by Ollie or others; it’s only insinuated. Ollie moves to New York from New Orleans because street hustlers in New York make more money. He is a Southerner, though, and the move to New York must have been for more reasons than just money. He never really acknowledges that men seek him out because he is disfigured.
There is no history of Ollie, either. We meet him when he is fighting in the service and learn that he’s from Arkansas, but that’s all we find out. Why didn’t he get jobs when he got out of the service? Didn’t he have any skills? Why did he drift into hustling? Why couldn’t he make friends?
The play has a little history about street hustling in New Orleans, but you wish there was more than just a passing reference to military boxing. The history of the ring in the military is long, going all the way back to the establishment of a boxing team at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1865. The Navy and the other services all have had, and still have, superb boxers who come out of fine programs. There are all-military championships held each year, along with intra-service titles. The fighters in the programs travel all over the world to compete. Thousands of sailors fought in military bouts and championships in the 1940s (remember Private Prewitt in From Here to Eternity?). You just wish Williams and Kaufman had put a little more of that colorful boxing history in the play.
Elder is a majestic Ollie. From the first time we meet him he is a lonesome, drifting Southerner who is fast with his hands and not much else. Elder has a marvelous range of moods that add enormous depth to his character. Other fine actors in the show are Noah Bean as the narrator (despite his tendency to drag the pacing down), Todd Lawson as a divinity student, KC Comeaux as a hustler, Steven Hauck as a chaplain, Christopher McCann as a prison guard, Greg Pierotti as a gay pimp, and Larisa Polonsky as the porno actress.
The set is a stark one-room apartment that’s easily transformed into a boxing ring, prison cell, condo terrace, and the deck of a ship with slight furniture adjustment and careful lighting.
Director Kaufman has staged a finely-crafted story. The pace of the drama is slow at times, but it is an effective and convincing play. The acting cast, a fine ensemble, continually drives home the sordidness and sadness of Ollie’s life. They explain, in vignette after vignette, how people toss Ollie back to the gutter when they finish with him. And, most of all, they open up another long suppressed story of gay life in America in the 1940s.
PRODUCTION: Producers: the New Group, the Tectonic Theater Project. Sets: Derek McLane, Costumes: Clint Ramos, Lighting: David Lander, Music & Sound: Shane Rettig, Fight Direction: David Anzuelo.
Bruce Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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