Review: ‘One Arm’

Tennessee Williams' dark tale of a one-armed hustler on the road to rack and ruin throbs with the problematic, dated stench of self-proclaimed gay sin, 1940s style. Yet "One Arm" displays enough raw, timeless sexual tension and stylized dramatic energy to thoroughly ignite even the most asexual viewer.

A Pulpy potboiler shot through with equal measures of personal revelation, formative experimentation and palpable self-loathing, Tennessee Williams’ dark tale of a one-armed hustler on the road to rack and ruin throbs with the problematic, dated stench of self-proclaimed gay sin, 1940s style. Yet “One Arm” displays enough raw, timeless sexual tension and stylized dramatic energy to thoroughly ignite even the most asexual viewer.

In the hand of Moises Kaufman — who has adapted and significantly amplified a problematic text based both on the 1945 Williams short story and his unproduced screenplay from the 1970s — the result is a fascinatingly lurid, provocative and fatalistic piece of theater. Somehow, it captures the complex, oft-destructive energy of its author, while adding just enough metatheatric remove that we get to ponder and critique the strange, complex context of the original while also enjoying much of its sensual heat.

Combo of postmodern sociopolitical analysis and good, old-fashioned sexual guilt, it’s the best of both worlds for the liberal target aud here.

“One Arm” is a far more problematic text than any of this skilled adapter-director’s prior endeavors, and that may limit its commercial prospects. Many will find elements of this show repulsive — it certainly is an unwelcome echo of past dramatizations of gay Americans as lonely, depressed, fatalistic figures inhabiting a shadowy world of park-bench hustlers and perceived abnormality.

But with some of its excesses tamed and its weird narrative holes plugged, “One Arm” should become the kind of compelling show that will illuminate some and infuriate others — depending on the viewer’s point of intersection — but it will never bore.

Defenders of Williams as a romantic, poetic aesthete may despise this thing, regarding it as a product mainly of his later, drug-fueled interest in shock. But for the many Williams aficionados hungry for explicit authorial revelation, “One Arm” will serve as further evidence of the author’s incomparable ability to forge once-functional human disasters who plunge from one humiliation to the next — even as American society reveals its constant inability to accept an Other.

Even in this first Chi outing, much of the staging is exceptionally powerful. Kaufman, who added his own dialogue to the Williams scenarios and narratives, walks a fine line between channeling Williams’ intentions (at two very different periods of the writer’s life) and writing his own play in Williams’ style. The result is a skilled amalgam of the two.

A guy in a fedora sits behind a microphone and reads both narrative descriptions and screenplay settings — he talks openly about the history of the work and stands outside of it. But the bulk of the show is fully dramatized.

Ollie, a former military boxer from New Orleans, loses an arm in an auto accident. Finding himself spurned, the ostensibly straight man becomes a gay hustler. He wanders up to New York, encountering enthusiastic johns and miserable souls aplenty. But he’s fated to enjoy neither happiness nor acceptance. And like David Mamet’s “Edmond,” Ollie falls further and further toward a hell that ends (or maybe just begins) in a date with the electric chair.

To a large extent, the character is intended by both Kaufman and Williams to be a cipher — a human victim of urban American misery, as well as a beautiful canvas on which one can play out one’s desire. But there’s a paradox there. The guy is supposed to be an extraordinary beauty, but he has one arm. And that means those who desire him must admit their own perversions and exploitative tendencies.

“I remember you plain as day,” writes one haunted john to the condemned gigolo in jail, “despite it being midnight when we met.”

All of this whacked-out emotionalism is more than enough for theatrical interest. And there already are a couple of gorgeous scenes here — one in particular, with an old, rich man (played by Joe Van Slyke) is haunting, as is the piece’s one depiction of heterosexual love, in the form of a desperately sad assignation interrupted by a riot in the ghetto.

Narrative cohesion has to be foregone amid a number of incongruities. Ollie gets arrested by New York cops, yet apparently is imprisoned in a Southern jail; his boxing weight-class changes every five minutes; time comes and goes with jarring imprecision; the gutsy actor at the heart of the show, Reynaldo Rosales, often is asked to simultaneously evoke opposite metaphors, and thus it’s no wonder he has his problems.

But given the state of the text — texts, really — this is precisely the right approach: The best writing in “One Arm” is in the narrative descriptions, and this way we get to enjoy them.

Kaufman would be well advised to expand his concept, to contextualize the work more, to openly explore Williams’ self-destructiveness as well as his poetry. But “One Arm” already has an admirable central perf and a slew of fine character work.

“Death has never been much in the way of completion,” goes the telling last line. With “One Arm’ at least, Kaufman might just be on his way to defeating the grim reaper that Williams, in all his complicated glory, has already met.

One Arm

Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago; 600 seats; $55 top


A Steppenwolf Theater Company, About Face Theater, Tectonic Theater Project presentation of a play in two acts adapted for the stage by Moises Kaufman from the short story and unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Kaufman.


Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Janice Pytel; lighting, Mike Baldassari; music and sound, Andre Pluess, Ben Sussman; production stage manager, Anjali Bidani. Opened, reviewed, Dec. 4, 2005; runs through Dec. 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.


Ollie - Reynaldo Rosales
With: Marilyn Bielby, Josh Bywater, Jason Denuszek, Steve Key, Sandra Marquez, John McAdams, David Parkes, Kelli Simpkins, Joe Van Slyke, Michael Stahl-David, Eltony Williams, Shane Williams.

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