Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oleanna by David Mamet

By Joe Straw

David Mamet is sitting four rows down from me (slightly intimidating). His hair is short with a slight trace of grey stubble. His vision is beyond his nice yellow tortoise shell glasses. He is always in conversation. His hands are thick and touching as though he were holding a small globe. He leans right to discuss something before the lights dim. A row behind him is some of the most gorgeous women on the planet. And yet he seems focused on the production of Oleanna about ready to start at the Mark Taper Forum. And with this theatre going on in front of the stage there is that guiding principle that the show must go on despite the distractions in the theatre seats.
Oleanna is a superb play written by David Mamet. It is about distractions and misunderstandings between the sexes. Sharply directed by Doug Hughes who does not let up on the action from start to finish. From the opening moment to the bitter end it is a play about spoken thoughts, an unappreciated quip, a friendly physical gesture taken completely out of context.
And then there’s the phone - a constant distracting reminder of another demanding life on the other end.
The play is about John the professor (Bill Pullman) and the student Carol (Julia Stiles) and the battle they wage about what is right and conversely what is wrong with their relationship. This is a battle of words, of pen to paper, of documented life slanted to destroy a life.
John is nearing the pinnacle of his career. He is buying a new home for his wife and son and is close to having the Tenure Committee grant him tenure. And who wouldn’t want life tenure in these days of economic instability.
Freedom of expression is a myth. In academia freedom of expression is reserved for those with tenure. So it comes as no surprise that the person who espouses the virtues of freedom of expression is eventually enslaved by it.
There is not a trace of a sexual relationship in this play. All the actions on stage are motivated by an underlining fantasy of lust, greed, aggression and dominance of another human being. And it starts with the manipulation of an undergraduate student who in no short order becomes the one pulling the strings. This happens with Mamet’s carefully crafted dialogue. Words that will wait for the inevitable stroke of disaster.

While the two are brought together because of her bad grades no one is an unwilling participant. The professor loves to teach. The student wants to understand and get good grades to get into a graduate program. Whatever their motivations there is a primal sinister objective purpose to each of their characters possibly unrealized because of the distracting telephone calls.
The production of Oleanna is a battlefield of words. Its weapons are stinging blades of accusations and innuendo. Littered in the battlefield are the rotting corpses of the physical and the emotionally defeated.
Like a car wreck you heard but blinked before you saw it all, Mamets dialogue are there for you to play back in your mind over and over until you begin to understand the complexities.
Bill Pullman, as John the professor, creates a complexed character from beginning to end. His scattered life is such that he cannot complete one single item on his agenda. Because of distractions he is not focused to fruition and in the end he loses everything. His nuanced performance is exciting and should not be missed.
Julia Stiles, as Carol the student, has a quiet intensity that carries her throughout the production. Her thoughts kept close to her heart. There is this small town conservative ridged ness about her that guides her character to do what she needs to. She is a student who has worked hard to get into college and nothing is going to stand in her way of getting that education even if it means destroying a life in the process.
Written after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debate this play begs you to take a side. Oddly enough, after seeing this production, I have moved to the other side.
Neil Patel’s set is beautifully functional. The university richly detailed behind the windows but hidden by mysterious electrical blinds that descends to give privacy to the actions on stage.
Oleanna refers to a song about utopia and perhaps Mamet has reached his utopia because he sits there during the performance motionless, focused, and unaware of the distractions around him.
Now playing at the Mark Taper Forum May 28 – July 12, 2009.

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