Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Gritty Theater

Polonsky and Elder in One Arm
Tennessee Williams’ One Arm
Adapted for the stage and directed by Moises Kaufman
Starring Noah Bean, KC Comeaux, Claybourne Elder, Steven Hauck, Todd Lawson, Christopher McCann, Greg Pierotti, Larisa Polonsky
Opened June 9, 2011; closes July 2, 2011
The New Group/Tectonic Theatre Project
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street

It’s easy to see why One Arm remained an unproduced film script, even if it was written by none other than Tennessee Williams, based on his own short story about Ollie Olsen, a hustler who lost an arm to a car accident while in the navy (where he was a championship boxer). Set in the seediest areas of New Orleans and New York, One Arm doesn’t shy away from showing what happens to Ollie before and after killing a sleazeball who paid him $200 for a porn shoot with a young woman.

Ollie’s downbeat story, coupled with an unflinching look at his (mostly homosexual) exploits, makes for an uncomfortable 75 minutes in the theater. But in Moises Kaufman’s spellbinding staging, this depressing tale comes across powerfully, as a first-rate cast, creatively shabby lighting and sets and an admirably honest look at a group of shady characters make for an eminent co-production by the New Group and Kaufman's Tectonic Theatre Project.

Ollie is enacted with formidable forthrightness and an imposing physicality by Claybourne Elder, while the narrator (the play’s weakest link, unnecessarily imposing Williams’ voice onstage) is played by a wobbly Noah Bean. Other cast members impressively play various roles, led by a stellar Larisa Polonsky as the women in Ollie’s life: whether a French Quarter stripper, a naïve nurse, or his porn partner, Polonsky breathes a moving authenticity into each part.

Williams’ dialogue has a gritty poetry that perfectly mirrors Ollie’s increasingly desperate straits. Director Kaufman shrewdly makes the Acorn Theatre’s wide stage, which takes up the places Ollie lived and worked to the jail cell where he spends his final days, seem claustrophobic. What could have been a cloyingly obvious melodrama is transformed into a staggering Greek tragedy.

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