Review by Tulis McCall
11 Oct 2009
There is enough fancy talk in this play to make your head spin. Seriously.
Oleanna is one part ambiguity, one part fancy talk, and one part incomplete sentences. It’s an intriguing recipe but not a satisfying production.
Carol is a student at a University where John teaches. She has asked to meet him because she is drowning in her own inability to understand what is really going on in this course. Exactly what John teaches in never made clear, but it seems to have something to do with philosophy. He has a lot of ideas on how young people should be released from the promise of an education that teaches them how to memorize as opposed to how to think. Carol is up against what? She fought hard to get to this school. We never find out the obstacles or the facts of her near collapse, other than that she thinks she is stupid, and bad, and pretty much doomed. She is, in words of one syllable – a basket case.
John is in the middle of final negotiations on a new home that are not final at all. The new home was purchased upon the promise of tenure, which has been announced but is, like the house, not final at all. When Carol arrives in his office John stays to talk to her instead of attending to his agitated wife and their intended purchase. Feeling powerless at work and home, John makes the unilateral decision that he and Carol can privately work through the course curriculum together, if that’s what it takes. He wants to prove to himself that he CAN teach, and promises her that, if she agrees to meet with him privately her grade will be an A.
Some time later (there is no identified time span) we catch up with this duo to discover that what happened in John’s office has been noted in detail and submitted to the Tenure Committee as a formal complaint. John is accused of sexual harassment and, what’s even worse for him, of being a diffident and arrogant professor.
And we are off to the races. Almost.
In this and the final scene we watch what should be a verbal fencing match. The distraught student has turned into a razor sharp who not only questions her professor’s authority, she corrects his grammar. The professor, who clung to academia all the while ridiculing it, finds himself on black ice. Neither of them are secure or without doubt. Parry, thrust, withdraw, attack. It’s like a dog fight where no one knows what set the beasts off, and no one wants to stick their hands in to try and stop it.
What does stop or at least slow this down are the actors who deliver lines with about as much variation as an automatic stapler.
As John, Bill Pullman begins the play in such a high strung state of affairs that he has about one inch of breathing room between himself and the ceiling. He stutters and jitters and gasps himself about the stage so much of the time, it’s a wonder he doesn’t hyperventilate.
Carol is a woman who lives by rules. She speaks whole words and expects whole results. Part of how she gets through life is by listening to herself speak. It proves she is alive and present. Stiles rarely lands square in the middle of the text, with the exception of her fine melt-down in the first scene.
These actors sound as though they were focusing on their cues instead of their actions. This cannot be the case because both actors performed this show in Los Angeles earlier in the year. I guess it goes back to the way directors perceive Mamet should be performed. Instead of making this sound like quick conversation, Doug Hughes has guided his actors into a verbal exchange that lacks juice.
In addition to a dull rhythm, we are not clear WHEN this play takes place, which is critical to the whole story. It was written in 1992. Is this story 2009 or 17 years ago? Inquiring minds need to know.
With Oleanna, Mamet takes on sexism, hypocrisy, education, betrayal and deceit, among other topics. All of which are blips on the screen compared to the main subject, which is power. Power assumed, power denied, power given away and power usurped.
With this production, all is served up as power unplugged.
BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "Often seemed slow to the point of stasis, and its ending found me almost drowsy."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, "Misjudged production."
ELISABETH VINCENTELLI for NEW YORK POST says, "The play certainly has its problems"
JOHN SIMON for BLOOMBERG says, "Lost none of its power to provoke."
ELYSA GARDNER for USA TODAY says, "Gripping new production"
DAVID SHEWARD for BACK STAGE says, "Hughes and his actors incrementally increase the tension till it explodes"
ROBERT FELDBERG for THE RECORD says, "Certainly visceral theater, but, in this production, it doesn't offer much to think about."
ROMA TORRE for NY1 says, "Poor drama"
MICHAEL KUCHWARA for ASSOCIATED PRESS says, "Fine new production"
FRANK SCHEDK for HOLLYWOOD REPORTER says, "Contrived drama"
DAVID ROONEY for VARIETY says, "A manipulative play that only feigns impartiality."