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Paulanne Simmons

An Uproduced Tennessee Williams Work Get Tender Treatment

"One Arm"
Directed by Moises Kaufman
The New Group and Tectonic Theater Project
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th avenues
Opened June 9, 2011
Mon.-Wed. at 7pm, Thurs. & Fri. at pm, Sat. at 2pm & 8pm
Tickets: $60
Closes July 2, 2011(212) 239-6200 or thenewgroup.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons June 18, 2011

"One Arm," an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams, is certainly not the best of the famed playwright's work. But even when Williams is not at his best, he's much better than most writers. And given Moises Kaufman's skillful adaptation and direction, the play, about Ollie Olsen, a one-armed boxer turned hustler, becomes a moving commentary on life and love.

"One Arm" is narrated by an author (Noah Bean) who befriended the boxer in New Orleans. This narrator is a man who is most probably just as much Williams as the Tom in "The Glass Menagerie." He only meets Ollie (Claybourne Elder) once onstage, when Ollie gives his friend money to redeem his typewriter from the pawnbroker. But the narrator knows his friend's whole tragic story.

A promising lightweight champion of the Pacific Fleet, in which he serves, Ollie lost his arm in a car crash with his drunken buddies. With few opportunities open to him, Ollie earned his living traveling around the country hustling, either as a freelance or working with a service agency.

As the play opens, Ollie is in jail, condemned to he electric chair for some unspecified crime. He appears to have no friends and no family. However, every day he receives letters from all over the country, written by men whose lives he has touched. It appears that somehow this hustler, who has been unable to feel since the accident, has been able to make a difference to others in a very special way.

In a series of flashbacks, the audience learns more about Ollie's various encounters, as well as his crime. But it is not until his final encounter, in jail, with a closeted gay man who is a seminary student, that Ollie learns to feel once more.

The various characters in Ollie's story are interpreted by an excellent ensemble cast. And Elder plays his role with the right touch of nobility and bitterness. Kaufman, a high-profile director whose directing credits include "33 Variations," "I Am My Own Wife," and most recently,"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," clearly took on this project because of a deep and personal commitment. and it shows in his sensitive direction of this admittedly lesser work.

The set, sound design and lighting, all of which take their cues from the best productions of Williams' work, effectively evoke the insular south of years gone by. The play drips with sorrowful nostalgia.

If "One Arm" does not have the thoughtful characterizations of Williams' best plays n many ways the play does fall neatly into the traditional Williams oeuvre. "One Arm" is about a wanderer with ambivalent sexuality, a man who has lost his way and needs to be redeemed. It is clearly self-referential and symbolic.

For Williams aficionados it is a must see. For others, it is strongly advised.

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