I am a huge fan of David Mamet when he is at his best. The 2005 production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and last season’s “Speed-the-Plow” are high on my top 20 list of Best-Plays-I’ve-Seen-In-The-Last-50-Years. Mamet is at times an absolute master of language—the sounds, the rhythms, the mot juste for every occasion. He can pack more into 75 minutes of playing time and a small cast of characters than most playwrights can manage with two-plus hours and a stageful of actors.
This is not to say he doesn’t have his down moments. I walked out at intermission during last season’s tepid revival of “American Buffalo;” ever hopeful, I rarely walk out, so this should tell you something. I was also less than enthralled with “November.” Audiences generally agreed, and both of these plays had short runs.
Having never before seen a production of “Oleanna,” I came to the play with fresh eyes. Indeed, “Oleanna” probably does not lend itself well to repeat visits; its impact is dependent on a round of punches that shock (and they do shock!) on first viewing only. This is Mamet neither at his best nor at his worst; the unfolding of the plot is perhaps more at the forefront, and the language—while still powerful—lacks the smooth-as-aged-bourbon quality of his best work.
On the face of it, the play is another “Battle of the Sexes,” occupying some of the same territory as does “After Miss Julie” a couple of blocks away, with real or perceived (you be the judge) sexual harassment substituting for actual sex. To be more specific, “Oleanna” is about the power wielded by those who claim to be powerless: a charge of sexual harassment lodged by a female college student against her male professor that results in his losing his tenure bid, his job, his home, and possibly his freedom altogether.
The original production of the play is reported to have been more balanced in its depiction of the two characters involved, so that it really was open to interpretation as to whose side you were on. In this production, however, it is clear that the student, Carol, played with depth and scariness by Julia Stiles, has the upper hand—at least through the second and third scenes of this 75-minute nerve-wracking nightmare of a play. (Have I mentioned that I am a male college professor?)
Against Ms. Stiles, actor Bill Pullman doesn’t stand a chance. His “John,” the hoping-to-be-tenured professor, falls handily into every trap that is laid before him—the final one being a real gasp-inducer for much of the audience.
Even though the action is compacted into three relatively short scenes, it does have the arc of a three-act play, and it explodes and continues to spume lava once we get past the first scene. If there is a problem, it lies with that first scene, which feels as if it belongs to another play altogether. For the first 20 minutes or so, the play seems to be about the inability of humans to communicate; the dialog consists of starts and stops and swallowed words and interruptions that convey a sense of real frustration—but mostly it is the audience that feels frustrated. In particular, Carol, the student, is depicted much differently in this first scene than she is in the later ones, and it is hard to reconcile the opening scene with the rest of the play.
Director Doug Hughes (a busy man, he is also responsible for “The Royal Family” two blocks away) has added a most annoying touch; between each scene, a set of window blinds opens and closes by means of some noisy and irritatingly slow electronic device. No idea what that’s about, but the play would not suffer with either its loss or by dropping the first scene altogether.
Despite these distractions, I do recommend “Oleanna” to any Mamet fan who has never seen it. Meanwhile, we can look forward to Mamet’s new play, “Race,” which begins previews in mid-November.