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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
LA Production Review
LA Production Review
by Evan Henerson
That unwieldy "thud" you may be hearing is the sound of the scales tipping in favor of oppressive white male patriarchal figures everywhere. Sorry and all, but, my goodness, look at the alternative!
There she stands, her hair in a careful bun, her clothes unremarkable. She asks for help, cries out for pity and assistance, claims stupidity and is anything but. She proceeds to take a chainsaw to the hand offered in amity, and then allies herself with unnamed, self righteous forces to exact awful revenge. Her name is Carol and, like the aforementioned OWMPF, we want to see her punished.
Those sympathy scales may actually have tipped, — bottomed out really — 17 years ago when the nation was too besotted by the Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill circus to see the forest through those brambly trees that David Mamet has so deftly planted in Oleanna. Or maybe the play has been subtly tweaked since its incendiary 1992 premiere in such a way as to uncloud the debate over whether a university professor deserves to have his life destroyed by a crusading female student. As previously noted, a lot of time has gone by, and a lot of water has passed under many bridges.
One thing, however, is certain. When you place a guy who oozes everyguy charisma like Bill Pullman in professor John's unfortunate shoes, he's going to get the vote over Julia Stiles's Carol. Against any Carol, most likely. Director Doug Hughes, who navigated an equally tricky debate in Doubt, must know this. His revival of Oleanna at the Mark Taper Forum is riveting for its cat-and-mouse, who's going to get it suspense more than for its presentation of PC arguments. Which is not necessarily the director's fault. Oleanna slides into the 21st century with a certain cultural datedness that the addition of things like cellphones doesn't entirely address. In today's climate, unless Carol is 1. clueless or 2. out of her mind, this character does not return to John's office for a third showdown, and probably not even a second. Not after the switches she's flipped, and the gears she's set into motion.
The venetian blinds descend, asylum like, into place in the roomy and low slung set designed by Neil Patel. John's office has a small couch, a bench, a lot of low bookshelves and a desk with a laptop. The space is plentiful, the central square suggestive of a boxing ring. Outside the six windows, a stone lined corridor opens out onto New England-ish feeling university. We are literally opposite a hall of academe. Deans get offices this size. So does John, who is spending too much time on the phone finalizing the purchase of a new home. He's recently been granted tenure. The new house represents the fruits of his labor, his life's work, proof that the institution he affects to scorn has given him the keys to the kingdom.
In John's office for an unscheduled appointment and sporting a pinched unreadable expression, is Carol who is flunking his class. When John reads a section of her paper aloud, we see why. Carol "doesn't understand" and calls herself stupid and deserving of failure. This pushes John's ego-driven paternal buttons. He's got some issues, after all, with the system that is higher education. He likes to hear himself speak, longwindedly, and he's not such a great listener. He also tells a story, offers a deal and puts his arm around Carol when she breaks down. Bad move, worse move, worse move still.
Other productions of this play have split up the action with an intermission, allowing audiences to spend time hashing out, "Did we just see. . .?" and "Was that. . .?" Not so here. Instead, the three scenes are divided by, uh huh, those grinding blinds which is either the world's greatest dramatic tension enhancer or its destroyer. Either way, it allows Pullman and Stiles to switch Catherine Zuber's costumes, letting Carol look more business-like, and John more worn.
Mamet's fractured dialog caroms artfully between these two smart and well matched combatants; Oleanna is, despite the undercurrent of violence and misogyny, one of the playwright's cleaner scripts. Stiles, who played this role opposite Aaron Eckhart in London five years ago (Curtainup review), negotiates the verbal terrain with great dexterity. She can do lost and strident with equal verve. Pullman, in his first Mamet play, matches her, although truthfully buying him as stuffed shirt academic is a harder sell than, say, as a beloved coach. It may well be that the actor's built in likeability is working against the play's seemingly balanced agenda, but I don't think so. Stiles, too is plenty appealing physically and emotionally and Hughes doesn't let us miss the instances where — but for the bad timing of ringing phones — these two might have scored a breakthrough. Can the line between emotional instability and aggressive delusion be so razor thin? Mamet clearly thinks so. Otherwise he's asking us not only to hand John the assassin's pistol but to save the professor the trouble of cocking it.
Ultimately what this OWMPF reviewer is saying, then, is that he wanted to like John less, and Carol more, could see Oleanna showing its age. . .and still spent 75 delicious minutes watching it all play out.
Oleana played at the Mark Tape Forum from May 28 to July 12th 2008. Same cast, director and creative team as listed in the Broadway production section above. Reviewed by Evan Henerson on June 9, 2008.