Monday, October 12, 2009


Photo/Craig Schwartz

Of the many lines repeated in David Mamet's hyper-realistic masterpiece Oleanna, the most common one is "You see?" Thanks to the brilliant work of Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman, I really do. This time around, the power struggle between the student, Carol, and the self-important teacher, John, is more evenly matched, and these actors have pulled out every nuance from the script.

Mamet's writing tends to emphasize our cruder sides--not the glossy, sitcom-speak you'll find in, say, Superior Donuts--and it takes a lot of hard work for actors to take these deconstructed thoughts and reconstitute them on stage. Luckily, Pullman's had plenty of recent training given the terse, strangling roles of Edward Albee plays (The Goat and Peter and Jerry), and Stiles has been growing into this role since she first played the part opposite Aaron Eckhart back in 2004. Furthermore, both are directed with Doug Hughes, who has--as he did in Doubt--helped to massage out all those subtleties, especially by slowing down those awkward, agonizing beats with John on the telephone.

The only thing that doesn't work in this production is Neil Patel's set (which has some unfortunately fake landscaping out its office windows) and Hughes's use of the venetian blinds to needlessly re-stress what the play already says about points of view. But that's--pardon the pun--just window dressing: Oleanna itself is as incendiary as ever, from the first scene, in which John attempts--in his unfortunately misguided self-appointed role as "paternal" teacher--to help a failing student, Carol, to the third and final scene, in which Carol--having stripped John of his chances at tenure--now presents John with her demands, and gets to teach him a lesson.

For the record, I still side with John. Though Pullman manages to show the character's preening obliviousness, he still comes across as well-intentioned. Stiles, to her credit, shows a lot more emotion and vulnerability in this role than I thought either were capable of, but Carol still winds up coming across as a remorseless goad at the end. Still, it's a closer fight, and that makes it a far more engaging one to watch. It also re-emphasizes the idea that just as removing context can change an desperate plea into an accusation of rape, adding context--a teacher's choice to abandon a student in need for, say, a surprise party--can transmute the lines once again. Ultimately, power is what determines which view is correct: right and wrong are irrelevant.

There's another oft-repeated line in Oleanna: "I don't understand." Ironically, that's probably the only line the audience won't get--what's not to understand?


isaac butler said...

Masterpiece? Really? For a two-hander to be a realistic "masterpiece" shouldn't both its character be equally-fully formed? Regardless of what levels of characterization Stiles may have been able to bring to Carol, the fact remains that she's a cartoon. The play is a stacked game masquerading as a he-said/she-said puzzle.

American Buffalo, Glengarry and The Cryptogram are all head and shoulders about Oleanna which is entertaining, sure, but ultimately nothing more than the airing of Mamet's fevered id.

Aaron Riccio said...

Plays don't have to be even for them to be masterpieces--if that were so, "August: Osage County" would never have won a Pulitzer. And I stress that Mamet's not working in realism, but a crude hyperrealism in which both characters *are* fully formed (albeit with fullness marked by significant absences in aspects of their character).

I think we're meant to hate Carol (though I may suffer from gender bias), and I do note that this performance can't hide that the play is still uneven in its treatment of her. But the more important point is that the play talks about "power" and "context" to such a degree that Carol's motives are irrelevant. She *is* correct in her actions and her perception--it has nothing to do with "he said"/"she said." (There's a great section where Carol nitpicks the word "allegation," rightly pointing out that once a claim has been accepted by people--if that claim is false--it becomes fact. Not necessarily that this is just, but that in a democratic society, this is so.)

I'll agree that "Glengarry" is a better play (we'll have to disagree about "American Buffalo," and I've never seen "Cryptogram" on its feet), but I don't think that discounts the power of "Oleanna."