Helmer Moises Kaufman, who created magic in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” teams up with two geniuses from that Broadway show (set designer Derek McLane and lighting designer David Lander) in an attempt to make more woo-woo with “Tennessee Williams’ ‘One Arm.’ ” Working from the playwright’s unproduced 1967 screenplay of his 1948 short story, Kaufman and friends apply their gorgeous visual aesthetic to the story of a young man from Arkansas who lost an arm, turned to hustling, and now awaits execution for murdering one of his johns. But contrary to Keats’ dictum, there is more to truth than beauty.
Williams had good reason for thinking that his short story might lend itself to film treatment. As a sailor, Ollie Olsen (Claybourne Elder) must have done some traveling before winning his title as the light heavyweight boxing champion of the Pacific fleet. As the hustler he became after losing his arm in an auto accident, he went on to meet a lot of lonely men in a lot of pretty cities. And with “Midnight Cowboy” about to score in 1969, it was a shrewd bet that the American public was ready to embrace an innocent farmboy brought to his knees in the big, bad city.
For the stage, Kaufman shrewdly creates tension by grounding this overabundance of material in the death row cell where Ollie awaits execution for killing the client who destroyed his last bit of self-esteem by forcing him to appear in a porno film. Vignettes of the events that brought Ollie to this place — the boxing match that won him his title; the drunken car accident that cost him his arm; the sexual encounters with desperate older men; the gutter world of pimps and whores he comes to know — are quietly if fitfully narrated by a writer (Noah Bean) at his typewriter, impressionistically staged along the periphery.
The visual mood is dark and stirring. An industrial-looking background of bare pipes and raw brick, cast in deep, mysterious shadow. Sepia tones, flecked with gold, lending a bit of false warmth to Ollie’s solitary cell. Given the nightmarish nature of Ollie’s memories, it’s no wonder he hides from the metallic lights hanging over his head like giant eyeballs.
The weakness of the show is what gave the short story its strength — the character of Ollie. As he cringes in self-loathing before death, this broken man slowly becomes aware, from the hundreds of heartfelt letters sent to him from past clients, that he was respected and even loved by the lonely men to whom he gave comfort with his body. (And yes, in the person of Elder, that body is quite beautiful.)
But the boy, as Williams insists on calling him, is dumber than dirt and virtually inarticulate, and Elder doesn’t register anything deeper beneath the skin or behind the eyes. It’s only at the very end of the play, when Ollie painfully takes up a pencil to answer one of his sorrowing lovers — in a poignant letter of exquisite beauty — that Williams finally makes his lyrical voice heard. The moment is shattering, but it comes much too late in the game to save Ollie from his fate, or the audience from its state of numbness.