Bill Pullman, Julia Stiles
A college professor, John, uses his power to demean one of his students, Carol, possibly sexually harassing or even raping her. The same student, using her own power, attempts to unseat her professor by taking his words out of context, presenting an argument to the university, which is currently considering him for tenure. Who’s erring on the side of justice? Whose side will you be on?
After the 80-minute car-crash-ride that is David Mamet’s modern classic Oleanna is over, an audience is left with the refreshing feeling that there are no winners in this tragic tale of extreme hubris, written on a not-quite-Greek scale but still containing the kinds of big emotions that elevate a play to dizzying, high-stakes heights, propelling its subjects toward inevitable lows and strapping an audience in to follow that journey.
Directed by Doug Hughes, there’s more nuanced acting on display here than in many other Mamet productions, perhaps due to the fact that Hughes is a master at balancing the scales. As in his masterful Broadway production of Doubt, for which Hughes won the Tony Award, there’s never a clear-cut indication as to where our sympathies should lie. The delight an audience will likely take from the production is in the slinging back and forth of power between the two parties and the accumulation of consequences that finally explodes in the play’s final scene.
Mamet, of course, is a master of wordplay. From the start of the play, as John considers the made-up phrase “term of art,” it’s clear that semantics and technicalities are very much a part of the playwright’s bleak world view. Characters misuse and reshape one another’s flippant remarks to construct their own arguments, gathering strands of conversation to weave a tapestry of their own making. This, in the end, is what undoes both John and Carol.
The stakes are high for both John and Carol. He’s worried about closing on a new house, but he needs the money that his tenure will provide. And Carol, worried that she will fail her class and affected by a childhood in which she was never considered good enough, feels justified in taking matters into her own hands, threatening his aspirations.
As John, Bill Pullman imbues his role with exactly the right amount of pathos. An audience most certainly feels for this somewhat estranged blowhard of a man, who, having surpassed the age at which dreaming seems realistic, finds himself grasping at security. Simultaneously dejected and angry, he cuts the air with his hands like a knife to score his points, as if using language to stake a claim in the world.. He’s just written a book after all, the contents of which Carol challenges in their conversations.
Julia Stiles is equally convincing in the role of Carol. From early on, it’s clear that something about John has struck a nerve in her. Knitting her brow, she sits seeming distressed; as the play progresses, her passive resistance gains aggression, as if she’s at once provoking John and evading him. The combination of their performances is combustible, with Mamet striking his two characters against one another like pieces of flint, poised to ignite.
By the end of the play, our assumptions about gender, language, power, and position have all been challenged. Though a post-show talkback, poorly led by Air America’s radio personality Lionel but featuring some heavy-hitting guests (sexual harassment expert Joanna Grossman and psychotherapist Mindy Utay on the night that I attended), failed to address with much nuance or subtlety the truly complicated nature of the play, thankfully, Mamet’s work speaks for itself. There are no easy answers to be found amongst the ruins. We can make up our minds one way or the other, but there’ll always be some nagging doubt, in the turn of a phrase or in the precariousness of an unwanted touch.