Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 11, 2009
Oleanna by David Mamet. Directed by Doug Hughes. Scenic design by Neil Patel. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Fight Direction Rick Sordelet. Cast: Bill Pullman, Julia Stiles.
First produced in 1992, the play paid tribute to the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings of the previous year, during which the prospective justice was accused by his former assistant, Anita Hill, of making inappropriate sexual statements to her at the workplace. The ensuing battle divided the country along political, gender, and class lines, forcing Americans to confront - whether they wanted to or not - the impact behind-closed-doors interactions have or should have in high-level power struggles.
Mamet treats the same basic premise, pitting a college professor named John (Pullman) against one of his students, Carol (Stiles), slamming shut the door to John’s office (the homily institutional design of Neil Patel), and then waiting to see how the man’s man and the still-forming-woman behave. Seemingly innocuous actions in the first act transform into searing mistakes, innocence becomes manipulation and manipulated, and good intentions become indistinguishable from the quest for blood. The beautiful thing about Mamet’s incomparably incendiary play, however, is that it inspires fervent disagreement about which character represents what - stories of post-performance shouting matches and even fistfights have dogged the show for years.
Whatever else Hughes’s production accomplishes, it ensures that verbal and physical violence will never spill out onto 45th Street. This play needs nothing more than its actors to speak quickly, precisely, and forcefully so its story will tell itself, and it has not gotten that here. Laden with shrill pauses, dialogue that should overlap but doesn’t, and an overall murky malaise, it feels more about the struggle of a father and his estranged daughter arguing about where to have dinner than about dissecting male hegemony and female repression in the era of political correctness.
Troubles are evident from the very beginning, when Pullman cannot unclench his teeth long enough to make his opening lines intelligible. He sucks down phrases and whole sentences throughout his opening speech, in which John argues about a house he’s trying to purchase in advance of being granted tenure, and throughout the act, as if embodying Carol’s description of John as a man who doesn’t communicate as if to be understood. Stiles, on the other hand, projects demand with every syllable from the get-go, capturing none of the clueless innocence of a young woman who claims to be bewildered by the concepts in John’s class. She meets every other statement of John’s with the furrowed brow and quizzical wrinkles of a woman whose hair appointment was rescheduled without her consent.
These are not minor transgressions. Oleanna requires each of its 75 minutes be played and voiced to the fullest to reach its critical mass, particularly in the first act, when it’s vital that both John and Carol be untainted vanilla quantities. We must believe each is as ignorant as the other about how they appear to the world so that the second and third acts can release wrecking balls through their walls of illusions. Because this production offers no intermission between Acts I and II (as the original, Mamet-directed Off-Broadway production did), during which its audiences and characters can simmer, making points loudly and unequivocally is doubly important.
Pullman improves markedly in the second act: John drops his Novocain speech patterns and approaches Carol with the cautious, full-throated suspicion she earned between the acts. She’s threatened his tenure bid, and thus his home and livelihood, by claiming that his words, touches, and insinuations in their earlier meeting were more sinister than they may have appeared. Pullman becomes the deer in the headlights he should be, but Stiles is still the same truck driver, foot on the gas, barreling through Carol’s confusions and accusations as though, for her, nothing at all has changed, though she’s grown more fluid and active in standing up for her own rights and those of her offstage “group” of advisors.
This disparity bleeds into the third act, when Carol is on the verge of taking down the man she feels has been keeping her down. Pullman, sniveling like a squirrel with a broken foot, and almost on the edge of tears, isn’t so much deflated as disintegrated. Worse, he’s barely in the same play as the jet-propelled Stiles, who again remains physically and vocally unchanged from the first scene even as Carol has ascended to the heights of power she’s always craved. Mamet’s most crucial argument, that Carol’s “group” is creating wiles in her where none previously existed, is rendered absolute nonsense. That he changes and she does not has never been the fulcrum of the play.
Hughes, who won a well-deserved Tony for directing another he-said-she-said takedown in Doubt, may have been trying to build up Carol’s character, but she needs no augmentation. If we don’t see how she grows as John shrinks, we can’t understand the conflict that leads up to the third-act shock inducer around which the entire play turns. It’s ignited by a simple line from Carol, but one of such seething viciousness and ideological acuity on Mamet’s part that you can both feel and hear the waves of outrage it sends surging through the house. It was, at least at the performance I attended, the only time Pullman, Stiles, and the audience all seemed alive at the same time.
This, by the way, is the legendary instant at which onlookers over the past 17 years have reportedly screamed things like “Rape her!” or “Kill her!” (One of my college professors insisted the latter occurred once when he played John.) There’s no chance of that sort of engagement in this Oleanna - those final moments can truly rile an audience, but need over an hour’s worth of foundations to be firmly in place first. Mamet’s bracing language and fierce perspective still ring out loud and clear from the script, but what’s emanating from the stage is so muted that the only exclamation you’ll likely to hear until that last scene is “Wake up!”