A Tale of Damaged Goods ***
By Isa Goldberg
The unfeeling life of a male hooker as dramatized by Tennessee Williams may sound like an obvious story. And in this case it is.
Moises Kaufman has adapted this 80-munite one act drama from Williams’ 1942 short story, “One Arm” and several drafts of the 1967 screenplay by the same title. Playing the central role of Ollie Olson, Claybourne Elder looks exactly as described, “like a piece of antique sculpture.” His perfect form brings to mind one of a string of modern day amputees, even “an angel of beauty” like the Venus de Milo.
As adapted by Kaufman, the story is told by a narrator, who also portrays Sean (Noah Bean), a young man who lives in the rooming house where Ollie resides when he first comes to New York. Like Tom in “A Glass Menagerie,” Sean is a sensitive writer. Transfixed by his neighbor’s good looks, he observes Ollie from a distance.
In dramatic terms, Ollie’s existence is framed from the onset. As the narrator states in the play’s first line, “The young man, so young you could call him a boy, is an actor, of course, and in the part that he’s going to perform he’s supposed to have only one arm.” Indeed Ollie is not only distant from Sean, but also from the audience. We observe him as we would a caged animal – without emotion. But in truth, it is Ollie who doesn’t want to feel. As one of his pick ups, a nurse, says, “You feel less because you feel that you’re mutilated.”
As in a 60’s movie, we learn of Ollie’s mutilation through a series of flashbacks that depict his life as the light heavy weight champion of the Pacific fleet through the car accident in which his drunken Navy buddies are killed, and in which he looses one arm. His career as a champion boxer banished, Ollie becomes a male hooker.
Even under the intense gaze of David Lander’s spotlights, Ollie is an opaque character whose meaning is held in reserve. Certainly, such elusive beauties – the men who we care so much about, but who never feel about us – populate Williams’ oeuvre. Still, in his well-known works such as “Sweet Bird of Youth,” the other characters have complex emotional lives as well. In “One Arm,” the hooker’s clients are the predictable series of aging men, all uttering the same refrain, “I got a nice apartment and a good supply of liquor.” Their self-interest is transparent. But the line has the iconic feel of an Andy Warhol image in multiple iterations reflecting the secretive gay life of the period in which it is set.
In fact, the play would be little more than a still life were it not for the expansive use of music and sound effects, designed by Shane Rettig. The sound of the ocean while Ollie is out to sea, to the street sounds of New Orleans, the port where he is forever damaged, create the third dimension to this static picture. Similarly, the music from the jazz bars and the go-go clubs delivers a sense of movement. That the recognizable tunes and rhythms of nature are paired with eerie, hollow inventions of sound, speak to the present. Ollie’s tale is told from the cell where he awaits the electric chair and where he finally discovers that he is capable of human feeling, and that life matters after all. After waiting for more than an hour for something to happen, I found that transformation unconvincing. The story, which lacked suspense, leads to a foretold outcome.
“Tennessee Williams’ One Arm” is at The Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street through July 2nd. The performance schedule is Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. and Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 p.m. with a Saturday matinee at 2:00 p.m. For tickets call Telecharge, 212-239-6200, visit telecharge.com or go to the box office.