nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 13, 2009
Seventeen years after its world premiere, David Mamet's Oleanna has lost none of its power to set audiences on edge. But, the play's current Broadway revival reveals it to be less an incendiary statement on sexual politics and the gender wars and more of an experiment in finding each audience member's individual boiling point. To wit, much of what the author does in Oleanna feels similar to a child poking someone incessantly to elicit some kind of reaction—any reaction—for their own amusement. Such tactics can be both annoying and infuriating, they are usually not noble, but they are almost always effective. And pointless.
Needless to say, I have some doubts about the validity of Mamet's intentions here, but they don't detract from the mostly excellent work being done by everyone else on this teeth-grinding new production.
Oleanna follows the rapid deterioration of civility between John, a soon-to-be tenured college professor, and Carol, one of his struggling students. Optimistic that he will achieve long-term security at the university, John is in the midst of buying a house, a tension-filled endeavor for both him and his (unseen) wife. Carol, fraught at the possibility of flunking John's class, meets with him to discuss the situation. Unfortunately, since this is Mamet-ville you know that things won't go well, an assumption that is soon verified by a sexual harassment complaint Carol files against John, jeopardizing his shot at tenure.
Director Doug Hughes does a good job emphasizing the play's claustrophobic aspects and ratcheting up the tension. He has a strong gasp of Mamet's specialized rhythms and knows how to convey them convincingly. So does Bill Pullman, who turns in a fantastic performance as John, painting a three-dimensional portrait by endowing the role with a rich inner life, evocative physicality (one can see the weight of his world on him from the play's opening moments), and a masterly command of Mamet's language. Pullman's performance clearly illustrates why John doesn't handle anything well: because he doesn't handle pressure well.
By comparison, Julia Stiles looks like a rank amateur, giving a strident one-note performance as Carol. Stiles's wooden acting—the lynchpin of which is her tendency to shout most of her lines—endows everything with equal value, which ironically has the effect of devaluing all she says and does. She doesn't get any help from Mamet, though: Carol is the best evidence the author's many detractors have for crying misogyny. As written, she is combative, dumb, petulant, self-centered, insecure, with no insight into life whatsoever, and far too literal. If Oleanna is meant to be taken seriously as a battle of the sexes (as has been suggested in the past), then it's all too clear what Mamet thinks of the fairer sex.
On a basic craft level, there are several plot points that, to me, seem to defy logic: why doesn't Carol just drop the class? Or leave the room? Why doesn't John do the same? Mamet isn't concerned with these. He just wants to piss audiences off, in which he succeeds in spades. Based on that criteria, Hughes and Pullman (and Stiles, albeit in an unintentional way) fulfill the intentions of Oleanna quite well. But I'm not sure how satisfying an experience that will be for audiences paying Broadway prices.