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?