Get ready to be infuriated again. Or, at the very least, intrigued.
The linguistic pyrotechnics of playwright David Mamet are on full display in the bruising Broadway revival of "Oleanna," which opened Sunday at the Golden Theatre. It's Mamet's incendiary take on the consequences of political correctness _ specifically involving sexual harassment _ and how language helps to facilitate the battle.
The play caused quite a stir when it was staged off-Broadway in 1992. And there's no reason to expect that this fine new production won't generate a similar response, even among people who saw it some 17 years ago. That's when the then still-smoldering case of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill _ involving her accusations of sexual harassment by the Supreme Court nominee and his claims of a "high-tech lynching" _ made the two-character drama feel as if it were ripped from current headlines.
In "Oleanna," we are in the rarefied world of academia. Designer Neil Patel provides a genteel display of Victorian buildings beyond the large windows in a college professor's office where the verbal sparring _ and more _ take place.
In one corner: John, a nervous, distracted teacher, played by Bill Pullman, anxiously awaiting tenure and the closing on a new house. In the other: Carol, one of his female students, portrayed by Julia Stiles, struggling with his course yet fiercely protective of her rights and those of her unnamed "group," perhaps a collection of vigilant feminists. It's not entirely clear, which is one of the weird, unanswered questions in Mamet's play.
Pullman's professor is distracted and disheveled, a man eager to help this young woman and not realizing, at first, how his seemingly innocuous comments will be interpreted. Stiles' student is wary and more than a bit angry, a scowl plastered across her face. Therein lie the ingredients of Mamet's inflammatory cat-and-mouse game.
"Oleanna" is a fiendishly difficult play to pull off, but Pullman and Stiles, under the precise, careful direction of Doug Hughes, make the most of Mamet's seemingly imprecise language. The dialogue is full of starts, stops and backtracks that, bit by bit, build to an explosive climax.
Pullman's open demeanor, a countenance that morphs into desperation, is just right for this professor, whose world _ academic, financial and personal _ is unraveling around him. And Stiles' icy demeanor is tinged with a hint of sexual awareness, a clarity of purpose despite the woman's claims that she is lost in the professor's class.
"Oleanna" does its best to rattle everyone, the characters on stage as well as the theatergoers. What's more, the constant interruption of the professor's telephone not only makes him jumpy, but the audience as well. Maybe more so these days because in 2009 the ringing of cell phones has become a ubiquitous annoyance at just about every theatrical event.
"Oleanna" is about the use of power as well. And, in this case, the professor, by virtue of his title, holds the upper hand, at least at the beginning of the evening. What makes the play so fascinating is to watch that authority slowly slip away and see what happens when words just won't do.
Mamet's penchant for obscure titles _ "Speed-the-Plow" anyone? _ also is on display in "Oleanna." The title apparently refers to an old folk song and to a planned utopian community that never was built. Is a harmonious relationship between man and woman impossible to achieve? Judging from the results on view at the Golden Theatre, "uneasy" might be the best that can be achieved.
A know-it-all blowhard who loves the sound of his own voice is knocked off his high horse by a mouseburger of a girl.
No, not David Letterman. Or Dr. Phil, who's just grabbed himself a part in his own sex scandal.
It's "Oleanna," or David Mamet at his most manipulative. Written 17 years ago in response to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill he-said-she-said circus, the compact drama is back to push buttons. Sitcoms are built for laughs. "Oleanna" is made to enrage - it's a sitbomb.
The play's fuse and dynamite are Carol (Julia Stiles), an unassuming college student who's failing a class and her professor John (Bill Pullman), from whom she seeks help. She cries. He compassionately consoles.
Then she cries sexual harassment, arguing that his words and actions crossed a line. Forsaking logic and forgetting he has a lawyer, John tries to settle things by himself, but fails. All hell breaks loose in the third encounter, leaving John's personal life and shot at tenure life in ruins. He goes from alpha male to omega man - and you're left to debate who's to blame or if it was all a con.
Stiles and Pullman give fine performances. She's got a blank face and permanent frown perfect for a Mamet female - the nonentity with more to her. Pullman emits a fitting bookishness of a middle-aged Everyman.
The actors get somewhat upstaged by director Doug Hughes' uncharacteristically misjudged production, beginning with John's huge inner sanctum. It's supposed to convey power, but it's so absurdly enormous you have to figure that tenured teachers have room for a pool and tennis court.
During every scene change, vertical shades on John's office windows are lowered dramatically, as if to underscore a question asked by John and Carol 20 times in 75 minutes: "Do you see?" The two never actually do and that divide between the sexes is worth exploring. But Broadway's "Oleanna," which wants to provoke, has effectively been reduced to an inside joke - the blinds leading the blind.
In 1992, when David Mamet wrote "Oleanna," America was embroiled in a divisive culture war. Nowhere was the battle around political correctness more deeply fought than on campuses -- which is where Mamet set his two-hander.
But watching the play 17 years later is like watching something made during the Red Scare of the '50s. "Oleanna" speaks volumes not only about an era dominated by the shared paranoia of conservatives and lefty activists, but also about its creator's id. And what surged from Mamet's brain is the closest Broadway now has to a slasher movie.
At the time, most saw the story of the ugly battle between Carol (Julia Stiles) and her professor, John (Bill Pullman), as a savage critique of PC fundamentalism. Over three short acts and a taut 90 minutes, the relationship between student and teacher disintegrates to the point of sexual-harassment allegations and violence.
Stiles -- raw and intense, her mouth compressed into a grim line -- barely reins in what you suspect are pools of anger. Carol turns into destruction personified. And she keeps coming back, each time crazier and more aggressive than before. She's like Jason in "Friday the 13th."
But John isn't your typical good guy done wrong. Under Doug Hughes' direction, Pullman doesn't sweeten his character. The tenure-track John is so overly wrapped up in his ego and personal issues -- he keeps interrupting Carol to take phone calls -- that he doesn't listen.
He'll pay the price. And yet it's as hard to feel empathy for him as it is to feel sorry for the teenagers who keep doing stupid things when they know a killer's on the loose.
Removed from its original context, "Oleanna" is more about the Kafka-esque violence that can spring from neglected responsibilities and a total breakdown in communication.
Mamet, usually uninterested in his characters' back story and motivation, drops a few clues. One is that something big happened to Carol, but just as she's about to reveal it, John mindlessly interrupts her once again.
As for him, he has status, a family and friends, but still can't connect. Every time he picks up the phone, John opens with "I can't talk now."
The play certainly has its problems -- the incessant calls are increasingly contrived, for instance. But at its best, "Oleanna" shows what happens when parallel lines are on a collision course.
Here’s a little physics puzzle for John, the university professor from David Mamet’s “Oleanna” and a man who practically breaks his neck by bending it to consider questions from different angles: How is it possible that two productions of the same play — occupying roughly the same amount of stage time and using almost exactly the same words — can move at such vastly different speeds?
Such reflections are prompted by Doug Hughes’s revival of “Oleanna,” Mr. Mamet’s confrontational drama from 1992, which opened Sunday night at the Golden Theater in its Broadway debut. When I first saw this two-character battle of the sexes (and the classes) off Broadway at the Orpheum Theater, it seemed to move at warp speed, and I left it with shortened breath and heightened blood pressure. Yet the latest version, which pits the excellent Bill Pullman against the luminous Julia Stiles, often seemed slow to the point of stasis, and its ending found me almost drowsy.
You could attribute my reactions to various sociological and psychological factors. Many years have passed since I first saw this show. I am not the same person, and America is no longer living in the immediate shadow of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, when the testimony of Anita F. Hill inspired a furious national debate on sexual harassment in the workplace.
But I think the real difference in my response is less a matter of politics than of good old art and craft. The original “Oleanna,” which starred William H. Macy as John and Rebecca Pidgeon as Carol, the combative college student, was directed by its author. Mr. Mamet’s approach to staging his own plays has always been text-driven, governed by his avowed (and somewhat disingenuous) theory that if the actors just say the lines and don’t dawdle, the play will take care of itself. Under his direction “Oleanna” was, above all, a war of words colliding.
As staged by Mr. Hughes, the current “Oleanna” flies bravely in the face of Mr. Mamet’s prescriptions about acting. “There is no character,” Mr. Mamet has written. “There are only lines upon the page.” This “Oleanna” squints to read between those lines, and Mr. Pullman and Ms. Stiles have obviously been encouraged to create characters who are more than what they say.
Normally this would be a good thing. But Mr. Hughes’s “Oleanna” unwittingly makes a solid case for adhering to the Mamet method. If the “Oleanna” of 1992 left you breathless, Mr. Hughes’s measured interpretation leaves you plenty of time to breathe — and weigh and calibrate the arguments of its irrevocably opposed characters. With a set by Neil Patel that lends oddly palatial dimensions to a college professor’s office (with scenes punctuated by the ominously slow closing of tall, automated Venetian blinds), the play has been pumped full of an air of thoughtfulness that paradoxically comes close to smothering it.
That’s partly because “Oleanna” is a play about people for whom language is a conditioned reflex. They don’t think before they speak, even when they believe they do. A series of encounters between John, a professor on the verge of landing tenure, and Carol, a student on the verge of failing his class, the play is essentially an extended conversation. But it is shaped by the understanding that all conversation is potentially dangerous.
Carol comes to John’s office, distraught, to ask for a passing grade; though preoccupied with his approaching tenure confirmation and plans to buy a new house, he decides to help her. What happens after is a matter of individual interpretation, even though we see exactly what happens.
Or do we? What’s so infernally ingenious about “Oleanna” is that as its characters vivisect what we have just witnessed, we become less and less sure of what we saw. Anyway, that’s what occurs in performance — or should.
Think about it afterward, or read the script, and you’ll realize that the sympathies of Mr. Mamet, a man’s man among playwrights, are definitely with John, however flawed he may be. It also becomes clear that Carol, as a character, is full of holes, most conspicuously in the way she uses words.
All this is uncomfortably visible in Mr. Hughes’s production. Part of the problem is that Ms. Stiles is such a naturally assured, even patrician presence that it’s hard to credit her as the confused, intellectually bankrupt student of the first scene. From the beginning Carol appears to have the upper hand. (When she cries, her tears seem made of ice.)
By comparison, Mr. Pullman’s John registers as an addled, vulnerable figure. As Mr. Macy played him, John was pompous, patronizing, self-deluding and, for all his Socratic questioning, as much the prisoner of his intellectual clichés as Carol is in the later scenes, when she becomes an avatar of political correctness. Mr. Pullman puts John’s lack of confidence on the surface. He’s a chronic self-doubter, full of fear and given to mumbling, as if he doesn’t entirely trust what he says.
As he has demonstrated in first-rate portraits in Edward Albee plays (“The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?,” “Peter and Jerry”), Mr. Pullman is an expert in men who wear guilt like an undershirt. He conceives John in the same vein, and it’s a carefully thought-through, often affecting performance, climaxing in a stirring vision of a man flayed of defenses.
Yet even when things get physical between John and Carol, Mr. Pullman and Ms. Stiles never seem to connect, or even to inhabit the same universe. Each has found a personal and unorthodox way of dealing with Mr. Mamet’s fierce, fragmented language. Ms. Stiles speaks with a stiff, ladylike crispness, while Mr. Pullman gives what may be the most naturalistic line readings I’ve ever heard in a Mamet play. Neither approach is entirely appropriate to Mamet-speak, though it would help if both performances were on the same stylistic page.
Topical resonance helped make “Oleanna” famous, and it’s that aspect that the play’s producers are no doubt hoping to capitalize on with the production’s postperformance talk-back series with assorted guest celebrities (former Mayor David N. Dinkins, Kathryn Erbe of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” etc.). But “Oleanna” exists on its own timeless terms, and they’re defined by the power and limits of language.
With Mr. Mamet, the words really do come first. As this production demonstrates, interpreters who try to sidestep this cardinal rule do so at their peril.
There are key phrases in David Mamet's "Oleanna" that in their banal simplicity reveal as much about the two adversarial characters and their corrosive dilemma as all their heated verbiage combined. For frustrated student Carol, it's "I don't understand." For her heedless professor John, it's "I can't talk right now." And both of them favor multiple variations on "Do you see?" Miscommunication more than gender politics is the central issue in this incendiary 1992 two-hander, and that gulf is exposed with bristling conviction by Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles. But Doug Hughes' meticulously calibrated production can't correct the imbalance of a manipulative play that only feigns impartiality.
Written as what seems like a knee-jerk response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill circus of 1991, and the stranglehold of political correctness that was peaking around that time, the play remains provocative, even if it's unlikely to spark the same impassioned debates it did 17 years ago. The big difference is it now seems more about the misinterpretation of words and intent than the then-hot-button issue of sexual harassment.
In this showdown between a liberal Ivy League college professor (Pullman), whose opaque manner might be read as smugness, and an academically insecure student (Stiles) with a chip on her shoulder the size of New England, Mamet stacks the deck too heavily in favor of the former to make the drama a fair contest -- or to escape the charges of misogyny that have long dogged this play.
Carol is possibly the most complex female role created by Mamet, a writer whose women are more often ciphers than believably fleshed-out characters. But her switch from angry little-girl-lost to merciless destroyer of the patriarchal hegemony -- and mascot of an unspecified "group" that clearly suggests some radical-feminist coven -- is so rapid and calculating that all the vulnerability Stiles brings to the role can't make Carol much more than a vigilante taking down a scapegoat.
That shortage of ambiguity in the heavy-handed central conceit is a significant hurdle, but Hughes' sleek production is psychologically needling and uncomfortable to watch in a way that surely honors Mamet's intentions.
Designer Neil Patel amplifies the abrasive nature of the material by imprisoning John's improbably spacious, cherry wood-paneled office behind a wall of chilly metal blinds. They ascend and descend with an excruciating mechanical drone at the beginning and end of each scene, shutting out the wintry courtyard beyond and blinding their occupants to the world. Squeezed here into a single intermissionless act from the original two, the three scenes are clearly demarcated.
In the first, Carol appears petulant as she reveals her feelings of intellectual inadequacy. Her mood seesaws between tearfulness and prickly impatience as John's attention is diluted by constant phone calls from his wife and lawyer about closing complications on the purchase of a new house. Even worse are his rambling reflections on himself and the impending confirmation of his tenure. Then there's his earnest (or possibly mocking?) questioning of the value of higher education. While the character is not above reproach, his worst sins appear to be distraction, hypocrisy, windiness and condescension.
Nothing more untoward takes place than a consolatory hug and some poorly chosen words, but in scene two, Carol is back at John's invitation to discuss a sexual harassment complaint she filed to the tenure committee. Why either party would consent to a second private audience after such a grievance had been aired is unclear. Why they would then opt for the third encounter that constitutes scene three is even less so, and just one reason "Oleanna" is more an intellectual construct than a completely credible dramatic situation.
That said, once they get through the mannered opening stretch, in which almost every thought is fragmented and every second word either bitten off or interrupted, Pullman and Stiles keep the argument airborne, the interplay taut and the tension visceral -- right through to the disturbingly real climactic flash of violence.
Stiles (who played the role opposite Aaron Eckhart in a 2004 London production) has a tendency toward sulkiness that doesn't do much to soften her impossible character. But her balance of agitation and self-possession at least keeps the audience guessing a while, even if Catherine Zuber's three costumes for her could have been more subtle about indicating Carol's progressive empowerment.
Pullman is a far more emotionally available actor, and his inherent affability may play a part in further destabilizing the play's already shaky male-female equilibrium. Mamet makes us painfully aware of how much John has to lose, at one point even having the character question it all himself: "Am I entitled to my job, and my nice home, and my wife, and my family and so on." The playwright later threatens the ultimate intellectual castration when Carol smacks John with a demand that he repudiate his book.
Pullman's body language is transfixing -- flinching and increasingly worn as her attack gains force and his every attempt to reason with her lands him deeper in the muck. He's tense, twitchy and almost touching in his waffling certainty that Carol's charges -- no matter how carefully recontextualized to construe the most damaging intent possible -- have no foundation.
The dynamic is certainly unsettling, and its investigation of the susceptibility of language and behavior to perceptions that can distort truth and shift power is compelling. But while Pullman makes John's undoing a harrowing spectacle, the sheer acrimony of Mamet's stance against Carol blunts the confrontation.