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A CurtainUp Review

LA Production Review

After a Sell-Our LA Revival, Oleana's Professor and Student Continue Their Troublesome Pas- de Deux on Broadway

There are people out there who came here. To be helped. So someone would help them. To do something. To know something. To get, what do they say? 'To get on in the world.' How can I do that if I don't, if I fail? But I don't understand. I don't understand. I don't understand what anything means . . .and I walk around. From morning ‘til night: with this one thought in my head. I'm stupid.
— Carol the failing student trying to communicate her desperation to her self-absorbed, somewhat pompous professor.

What have I done to you?
—John. Considering how he's bumbled his attempt to help Carol, he might well be asking " What have I done to myself?"
Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
With the likeable Bill Pullman as the professor facing a sexual harassment charge and Julia Stiles as the accusing student, David Mamet's 1993 two-hander was bound to stir up a whiff of new excitement. And so it did. Enough for rumors of a Broadway transfer to turn into fact.

So, here we have another Chicago seeded scribe (Tracy Letts Superior Donuts and Keith Huff's A Steady Rain) on 45th Street. The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas brouhaha that made Mamet's two-hander a hot button event is history, and people in the halls of academia as well as commerce have become more sophisticated about avoiding politically incorrect situations (notwithstanding David Letterman's recent backstage relations with female assistants).

Yet, as made clear by the unusually jam-packed audience talkbacks that have followed all preview performances (and sure to continue at least once or twice a week), Mamet's miscommunicating and not especially convincing student and professor still get people stirred up enough to discuss their increasingly nasty to nastier, Rashomon-like power play. Like everyone else, this critic included, Friday night's after talk panelist, ex-Mayor David Dinkins who's now himself a college professor, found Pullman and Stiles terrifically entertaining but thought their characters bordered on caricature; in fact, Stiles switch from desperate insecure cluelessness to drunk with power one upmanship had Dinkins wondering why it took Pullman's John so long to erupt.

The original Carol and John (Rebecca Pidgeon and William Macy) were actually very good, but Pigeon's getup screamed "boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses. That cultural and fashion statement, like the early 90s political incorrectnes debates, has shifted emphasis and direction. Stiles, though dressed plainly by Catherine Zuber, is gorgeous. However, her Carol is no sex kitten but a disturbed outsider whose anger takes a disturbing turn via empowerment by a nameless campus group. Pullman, for all his endearing low-key sexual charisma, is no sexual predator. Instead he's a misguided, self-absorbed academic who likes the goodies of tenure as a professor of a course in some unspecified sociological specialty for which his publish-or-perish book is required reading. He also likes to see himself as above it all.

If only John had the sense to keep the door of his office open for his meetings with Carol, as Sister Aloysius did in Doubt, another contentious theatrical debate staged by this revival's director Doug Hughes. If only someone had told him to turn off his cell phone (in 1992 that would have meant turning on his answering machine), so that his distracting, personal phone conversations wouldn't have exacerbated Carol's already intensely pissed-off state of mind. But then we wouldn't have a play that these two terrific actors still make fun to watch.

In case you're curious about the title, Oleana was a failed utopia, and is thus Mamet's way of pointing out that life on the campus where his verbal battle plays out, is another illustration of a search for peace and knowledge that isn't quite what it's assumed to be.

The Los Angeles production which prompted its move to Broadway has transferred with its staging and cast intact. I'll therefore leave a detailed appraisal of what makes it fun and discussion provoking after all these years to my colleague Evan Henerson's astute review of that LA production.

You may also want to see what our London critic's review of Julia Stiles first outing as Carol but with a different director and co-starLondon review. For more about David Mamet and links to other plays by him that we've reviewed, see our Mamet Backgrounder.

Broadway Production Notes
Oleanna By David Mamet
Directed by Doug Hughes
Cast: Bill Pullman (John), Julia Stiles (Carol),
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet Stage Manager: Charles Means

Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Golden Theatre 252 West 45th Street (212) 239-6200
Tickets, $116.50 to $76.50, From 9/29/09; opening 10/11/09; selling tickets through 3/07/10--closing early 1/07/10.
Tuesday at 7PM, Wednesday through Saturday at 8PM, with matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2PM and Sunday at 3PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer October 9th

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.
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