Sunday, October 11, 2009


"Oleanna" at the Golden Theatre, October 9, 2009

David Mamet's 1992 work, "Oleanna" twists a tale of a college professor trapped into a battle with a female student. John (Bill Pullman) came reluctantly to the world of academia, never having fully jettisoned the baggage of his upbringing which labeled him as stupid. Capitalizing on this weakness, Carol (Julia Stiles) first appears in his office after class, desperate for help to pass his course. It's a frustrating and unsatisfying work. (Spoiler Alert)

In the first scene, John is trying to negotiate the purchase of a new house - something more befitting his incipient tenure at the college. Phone calls repeatedly (and predictably) interrupt his appointment with Carol. She appears vulnerable and near her wit's end at what to do, since failing the course would cause a significant setback to her ambitions. Emotions run high and John wants to help, offering to work with her individually to get her back on track and through the class successfully. Some of Carol's own baggage is intimated along the way as she wavers on the edge of emotional control.

When the lights come up on scene two, the tables are dramatically (almost inexplicably) turned. John's tenure is now in jeopardy, since Carol has filed a complaint of sexual harassment against him following their first meeting. By the third scene, not only has John been suspended from the school, Carol has filed attempted rape charges with the local police. John finally snaps and the curtain falls as he attacks her.

Mr. Pullman brings us a man strung so tightly, it's a wonder he didn't snap years before, yet there is a kindness within despite the haughty attitude of "esteemed academia." His stammered delivery works very well with the rat-a-tat style of Mr. Mamet's writing.

Ms. Stiles, in her third appearance in this role following productions in London and Los Angeles, brings a full emotional commitment to her scheming and heartless character. We get no foreshadow of the evil intent during the first scene, making the character shift all the more shocking. Despite her sense of emotion, her actual delivery of the lines sound as though she's reciting verse, rather than speaking naturally as her character. I've always thought that Mr. Mamet's rapid-fire, overlapping writing style is one that only certain actors can master. Sadly, Ms. Stiles isn't there yet.

Director Doug Hughes seems to have needed more time to get the "Mamet-speak" smoothed out. He has clearly come down on John's side here, leaving Carol as a vicious and bitter harpy. And bitter is the taste that will leave the theatre with you.

Neil Patel's office set is dramatically nicer than any college office I've ever seen, though the annoying automatic raising and lowering of the levelors between scenes felt totally pointless. This was exacerbated by the poor quality sound design resulting in ear-splitting feedback reverberation.

It's nice to see Mr. Pullman back on stage in NY and I'm glad that Ms. Stiles is making her first open-run appearance. I hope to see her back again in a more suitable vehicle.

1 comment:

Yvonne Korshak said...

What a nice rich review! My sense is that the play itself -- Mamet himself -- is on John's side. And I thought Stiles was good (even though the play asks her to make character changes that just aren't convincing). And yes, how about that office! I wrote about the play at and if you pay a visit and read what I wrote I hope you'll let me know your thoughts. Yvonne