Claybourne Elder Wows New York With Tennessee Tour de Force

In the New Group and Tectonic Theater Project’s Off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ One Arm, Claybourne Elder plays Ollie, a chiseled and charming young Navy boxer, and he’s a total knockout in the role.

The 6-foot-1 out actor from Springville, Utah, pulls no punches in depicting how Ollie loses his right arm in an auto accident and then turns to a life of prostitution and prison. Based on Williams’ 1940s short story and 1967 unproduced screenplay, One Arm has been lovingly adapted into an 85-minute one-act and championed by another theatrical heavyweight: Moisés Kaufman.

Claybourne Elder (Photo credit: Andrew Parsons and Serge Nivelle)

Kaufman, the openly gay, Tony- and Emmy-nominated writer/director (33 Variations and The Laramie Project), says One Arm is “one of the frankest portrayals of the homosexual world that Tennessee lived in. And that made me want to do it. For the most part, gay characters in his plays end up committing suicide, eaten by cannibals or married to Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a dark story, but it’s ultimately a tale about redemption.”

As Ollie, the 29-year-old Elder gives a brilliant breakthrough performance as a noble and knocked-about fighter who learns to lower his guard, thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Kaufman, who has directed the likes of Jane Fonda, Liev Schreiber and Robin Williams, raves, “Clay’s one of the best actors of his generation. He is a very smart actor who has incredible instincts and intelligence. This role is so much about the flesh. Ollie’s obsessed with the loss of his arm, but he’s also selling his body. Clay’s a very physical actor who allows Ollie’s feelings to live in his body, and it’s very sensual.”

And the critics agree. Brandon Voss of the Advocate says, “You can’t take your eyes off hunky out actor Claybourne Elder, which makes him ideal to play Ollie.” And Scott Brown of New York Magazine calls Elder “breathtakingly great. … His final bid for human connection is one of the most heartbreaking moments you’ll find onstage.”

KC Comeaux, Claybourne Elder  (Photo credit: Monique Carboni) sat down with Elder to discuss his role of a gay-for-pay hustler, working with Stephen Sondheim and going shirtless to play the Wolf in Into the Woods.

AfterElton: Congrats on One Arm! I hear you’re a big Tennessee Williams fan.
Claybourne Elder: I am. Nobody writes complicated people like he does. I love Stanley, Brick, Chance – all of them. And I’d love to play them someday. So when Moisés gave me the short story and screenplay of One Arm, I was immediately taken.

And when I realized he wanted me to play Ollie, I was terrified, but in that really good scared way. That’s how I knew I had to do it. I also was able to draw on Tennessee’s firsthand descriptions and many revisions, and Moisés has adapted it so beautifully.

AE: Moises told us, “Ollie is a mix of Stanley [from A Streetcar Named Desire] and Brick [from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof]. There’s something raw about Stanley and something troubled about Brick. And Ollie is raw and troubled.” Yet Ollie has a tender scene with a nurse that reminds us of Laura and her Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie, only Ollie is Laura. He’s self-conscious about his one arm the same way Laura is self-conscious about the brace on her leg that made her “clump” around.
CE: Exactly. And sometimes I’m Blanche. You see pieces of his writing throughout. Ollie’s original last name is Winemiller, which was used in Summer and Smoke.

AE: Williams wrote One Arm as a short story in the 1940s, penned a screenplay in 1967 and kept working on it before his death in 1983. Why was he obsessed with it?
CE: That’s the beautiful mystery of it. There are letters Tennessee wrote to friends in the 1940s about a one-armed prostitute he knew in New Orleans, but I don’t think One Arm is about some guy he had sex with.

There’s his great quote [from his preface to the screenplay] that says this story is about “mutilations, and their possible transcendence.” In a way, everyone in the show is mutilated, physically or emotionally.

AE: How did you decide to depict Ollie’s lost limb by strapping a belt to your right arm?
CE: In the screenplay, Tennessee says the actor playing Ollie would have two arms, and he would keep the other arm down by his side and just pretend it doesn’t exist, because there are flashbacks where you see Ollie with two arms before his accident. During a reading, Moisés strapped my one arm with a belt, so we’ve kept it.

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