Monday, October 12, 2009

Skirmish of the Sexes

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Bill Pullman, Julia Stiles

Performances from September 29, 2009
John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street

David Mamet’s Oleanna premiered in 1992, one year after the sordid Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Mamet’s treatise on political correctness encompassed sexual harassment, militant feminism and the parsing of words and actions. While the playing field has somewhat changed since, the outlines of Mamet’s world are still much the same as ours.

All 80 minutes of Oleanna occur in the office of John, a professor on the fast track for tenure. He welcomes a student, Carol, to discuss her difficulties with the course he‘s teaching. In the play’s three scenes, John and Carol move from a civil conversation about her classroom problems to a confrontation between an offended student who filed a complaint about his behavior in their initial meeting to a final showdown between an empowered feminist and a chastened, humbled (and now jobless) man.

There’s an undeniable cleverness in how Mamet puts his characters through their paces, showing how seemingly innocent declarations or actions can be twisted to seem maliciously calculated, up to and including a charge of rape. Unfortunately, Mamet stacks the ideological deck whenever he needs to maneuver his characters around his chess board.

As written, Carol is not very intelligent: she does not understand John’s course, nor the book he wrote, nor what words like “predilection” or, more absurdly, “indictment” mean. Yet she also tosses off “transgress,” “exploitative” and “amenable” without batting an eye. She mentions a “group” whose members are helping her vendetta against John, but it’s a reach to say that she learned these terms from them. Either way, Carol is another Mametian female stick figure—the man simply cannot write a believable female role.

Likewise, Mamet makes sure that the arrogant and self-absorbed John falls from his superior perch quickly: he keeps receives phone calls from his wife about their impending new home purchase, which begins to go awry at the same time as his meeting with Carol. But whereas most people would take the phone off the hook and turn off the cell phone, John continues to be badgered by calls throughout the play, which helps contribute to his downfall. It’s not that such behavior is unrealistic; it’s just that Mamet never convincingly shows it as plausible in this situation.

Doug Hughes’ production doesn’t improve on Mamet’s own that played the Orpheum Theater in 1992 with William H. Macy (who was terrific) and Rebecca Pidgeon (who was terrible). The larger stage of the Golden Theater necessitates—and gets—a nicely-furnished set by Neil Patel, although a non-tenured professor probably wouldn’t have such a beautifully appointed office, including four large picture windows that look out onto the campus. (The windows, however, have automatic blinds that rise and fall between scenes, which allow Hughes to lengthen this short play by a few minutes.) But that larger stage also defuses Mamet’s theatrical battlefield, which needs a smaller boxing ring for its haranguing adversaries.

Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles give intelligent, controlled performances, probably the most naturalistic portrayals I’ve ever seen of Mamet characters. Although Stiles nobly humanizes Carol—a breathtaking achievement in itself—Pullman’s John nearly equals her in empathy. Would that such nuanced acting didn’t end up canceling out Mamet’s impersonal and unnecessarily cruel view of these characters.
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