Stage Review: David Mamet's 'OLEANNA'

Now thru July 12, 2009

Mark Taper Forum
at the Music Center
downtown Los Angeles

Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles
star in David Mamet's '

I was in graduate school when David Mamet's "Oleanna" premiered in 1994, and it was one of those plays that had everyone talking: who's 'right'? The arrogant male professor, or his naive, self-righteous female student? At the time, you'll recall that 'Political Correctness' and 'Sexual Harassment' had yet to become things anyone with a shred of sensitivity could comfortably joke about. If they've more or less evolved into punchline material now 15 years on, it's because we appear to have learned the lessons of the era--about being a little more aware of the words we choose, the jokes we tell, and the way we touch and look at others--pretty thoroughly: just ask Don Imus and Michael Richards.

"Oleanna" is, in a sense, Mamet's early-90's, dystopian vision of where the 'political correctness' movement was taking us: John, a professor on the verge of tenure (Bill Pullman) meets in his office with Carol, a female student who's having trouble in his class (Julia Stiles). She complains that she doesn't understand his teaching and worries that she will flunk his class. Fearing that his work and lectures are becoming inaccessible, he offers to help her in one-on-one sessions. In the course of explaining some of his ideas, he references a study of sexual behavior, utters the words "I like you," and at one point, seeing she is upset, attempt to put his arm around her.

These fleeting moments take on a "Rashomon"-like quality in the play's second and third acts: she levels charges of sexual harassment against him, which puts his pending tenure confirmation and home purchase in jeopardy. Hilarity doesn't exactly ensue (far from it), but mayhem of various kinds certainly does.

I saw a production of "Oleanna" back in the '90's, directed by Mamet himself, and while I remember thinking that both characters were reprehensible, I also remembered that their clash was pretty balanced. Carol made some good points: John WAS pedantic. His actions could be construed as smarmy. He did appear to be trying to bribing her with a high grade in exchange for, if not sex, certainly a few hours of her undivided attention. At the same time, Carol's charges were blown out of all proportion, and her naivete drove her to vengeful extremes.

Now, fifteen years on, and eighteen after the Anita Hill hearings, the current production feels a bit like a period piece: when the big accusations fly (she equates his offer of help and subtle physical overtures with rape), we feel like we've heard it all before, found a point of compromise, and moved on. The opening night audience was clearly not in Carol's corner: there was audible, and contemptuous laughter at some of her grander proclamations, and when Pullman finally tells her to "Get the fuck out of my office," there was scattered applause.

The characterizations skew the play further in John's favor: Pullman is a skilled actor, and a master of Mamet's stylized language. For once all the ellipses and half-thoughts make sense: John is already feeling the walls closing in from the opening moments, fielding call after desperate call from his wife and real estate agent, and can barely finish a thought. Always likable on film, his warmth is even more palpable in person: throughout, we can feel his natural desire to do right by everyone--the hectoring voices on the phone, the administration, his students, Carol herself--even as he stumbles, badly and irrevocably, in the process.

Stiles, however, seems slightly miscast: despite having played the role once before, she seems too poised, too together, altogether too confident to seem legitimately threatened by Pullman (Aaron Eckhart, a significantly more imposing, and more naturally-devious actor than Pullman, played John opposite Stiles in the previous production: could that have been a better matchup?). Carol's counterattack on John in the second act, then, feels almost arbitrary.

By the end, this Carol seemed coldly calculating--almost an Iago figure--rather than a vulnerable woman finding a legitimate voice with which to fight back against her oppressor. The character makes repeated references to a life of hard knocks and economic hardship, but on the night, with her clear skin, flowing blond locks, and trendy outfits, Stiles came across more as the product of privilege and a good health insurance plan.

It's possible that this slightly sinister take on Carol may be a bold choice by Stiles, and by the director, Doug Hughes, as if they are daring their Los Angeles audience of deep-blue, artistic types to cheer for the straight, white guy in power, despise the articulate champion of feminism who takes him down, and then feel guilty for it afterwards. If that's the case, it doesn't quite work: lacking much motivation or vulnerability, Carol, already a tough role, becomes almost inhuman in this formulation, and the character's seams as a theatrical contrivance start to show. It then becomes too easy to write her off, side with John, and reduce "Oleanna"--unfairly, I think--to a cautionary tale about the dangers of opportunistic young women who game the Sexual Harassment system.

Nevertheless, it's an engaging, at times lacerating evening, and the crushing climax, which in the '90's production felt to me like clunky playwriting, is now genuinely horrific, thanks mostly to Pullman's finely-modulated descent into despair. It's clear that Mamet had an ax to grind with this play; he's got a beef with academia; a beef with classism and sexism, and perhaps most obviously, a beef with the dehumanizing, muzzling effect of Political Correctness. He seems to have written "Oleanna" to warn us of the monsters he believed we were on the verge of becoming some fifteen years back. We haven't yet, thank God, and, dated though it may seem, we may in part have "Oleanna" to thank for that.

- Andrew Heffernan

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