This isn’t the worst combination of folks to have backing a show. We’ve got a classically Williamsian tale. The New Group is known for producing quality and occasionally high-profile work. Discourse-dramatists the Tectonic Theater Project have been shaking up the theatre scene for 20 years with primary source-heavy dramas like The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and, of course, The Laramie Project. And at the helm, TTP Artistic Director Moisés Kaufman is a Guggenheim Fellow, is nominated for a 2011 Tony for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and is a decorated playwright.
One Arm relies on a screenplay drafted by Williams in the 1960s, based on a short story he published in 1948. The tale, adapted here by Kaufman, tells of a man who, before losing an arm, was a champion boxer of the Pacific Fleet. He’s out of a job and makes his way across the country working as a male prostitute before being arrested for murder. But Williams sure knew his way around the lonely, so what didn’t fly in the 1960s has alighted in a production that feels like a staging of the movie that never was.
New Group’s One Arm has a pedigree of Tennessee Williams’ dramatic precision and a capably inventive director, and benefits from a moody environment provided by David Lander (Lighting) and Derek McLane (Scenic). What ultimately slows a promising show down is a production-wide decision to lay it on thicker.
Trust is scary, a lesson well-marked by Ollie Olsen (Claybourne Elder) and apparently by most of the cast (save for Noah Bean’s casually excellent presence). The actors really work at it and seldom settle into a niche amid the considerable “stuff” going on around them. Mostly things feel slightly overwrought or rushed—Ollie apparently makes enough of an impression to warrant sincere letters of hope from his johns, though you wouldn’t know it by the perfunctory, literally repetitive treatment of their encounters.
The problem is that we’re supposed to connect with what Ollie can’t see about himself and the world around him, but what we’re given to connect with is filtered largely through his detached viewpoint.
Blame the unseen camera. Kaufman has been called a theatrical auteur—a title not uncomfortably worn—and his staging here has all of the detached utilitarianism of actual filmmaking. It is clear that it and the aforementioned lighting are intended to be a literal lens through which an audience can funnel its collective focus. I won’t get into the divide between film and theatre, but suffice it to say that theatre lacks the opportunity to trim and polish in post.