David Mamet's "Oleanna" looks like a cautionary tale about political correctness gone wild. But it's Mamet who has gone wild, with a tense, condensed play that exploits the war raging on campuses today between advocates of diversity and defenders of free speech.
David Mamet’s “Oleanna” looks like a cautionary tale about political correctness gone wild. But it’s Mamet who has gone wild, with a tense, condensed play that exploits the war raging on campuses today between advocates of diversity and defenders of free speech. The most generous position one could take on “Oleanna” is that it’s provocative, a rare enough thing in today’s theater. Then again, it’s also one of the nastiest contraptions to splutter down the pike in some time.
The two hands in this explosive two-hander are John (William H. Macy), a college professor, and Carol (Rebecca Pidgeon), the failing student who has come for an after-class session in his office.
The play begins like a Mamet parody, as professor and student rattle off a series of half-sentences in which no idea is fully expressed, fragments are repeated to no apparent purpose and a telephone interrupts incessantly as John tries to negotiate a deal for a new house.
Carol at first seems merely doltish, barely able to articulate her confusion over John’s course about education and his text for it. He’s something of a gadfly, questioning the “prejudice for higher education” and describing the schooling process as “prolonged and systematic hazing.”
She seems self-doubting and insecure, and has trouble with words like “paradigm.”
He warms to her, attempting some innocent-seeming intimacy (sharing with her, for example, his own sense of intellectual inadequacy) to advance the tutorial.
Then, wham! Comes Act II and Carol has filed a complaint with the faculty committee that had provisionally granted John tenure, charging him with sexual harassment, elitism and telling pornographic tales.
“Is it not always at those points we think ourselves most unassailable that we find ourselves most vulnerable?” he asks her. But by now, Carol has been transformed from self-doubting wallflower to scourge of the Old Order.
As tenure, home, even job slip away, John tries to reason with her, only to become more entangled in the sticky web she’s spun.
Carol’s complaints aren’t without merit, but they don’t come close to representing the real sexism women confront on the campus and that’s where Mamet goes off the deep end. He stacks the deck against her with stunning ferocity. Though some of Carol’s arguments are bound to strike a sympathetic chord, she comes off as a private in the PC infantry.
Carol’s the product of a paranoid imagination in which legitimate, important issues have dissolved into a universal feminist conspiracy to destroy men. Those issues demand examination, not rage.
Macy and Pidgeon handle all this with considerable conviction under the playwright’s direction. Michael Merritt’s oak office setting is nicely understated, as is Kevin Rigdon’s lighting, and Harriet Voyt’s costumes are fine. But beware the play that has six producers for every actor onstage. Somebody wants to share the blame.
Carol - Rebecca Pidgeon