There’s a fine line between exploring a highly charged topic and exploiting it. David Mamet crosses that line in his latest play, “Oleanna,” which had its delayed Los Angeles premiere at the Tiffany Theater over the weekend.
The play is Mamet’s take on the current craze for political correctness on campus, as well as the increasingly obvious gulf between the way men and women perceive the world. These are provocative subjects, to put it mildly, and Mamet does get the heart and the mind racing.
But he also stacks the deck by dramatizing a confrontation between an eminently reasonable (if somewhat paternalistic) male teacher and an eminently unreasonable (and somewhat fascistic) female student. The results play more like a paranoid male’s nightmare than a thoughtful look at a difficult subject.
When we meet them, John (Lionel Mark Smith) is in his office, providing tutoring to failing student Carol (Kyra Sedgwick). Why the special treatment? He says it’s because he likes her and empathizes with her problem of low self-esteem. In reality, he gets off on playing the role of magnanimous powerful man.
When Carol returns to his office some days later, her fear has been replaced by resolve. She has been talking to “the group”– apparently an organization of radical feminists — and with their help, she has interpreted virtually all of his actions in their previous session as sexist, classist, derogatory and demeaning.
What’s more, she has told all this to the panel that is considering him for tenure. His disbelief gradually turns to anger as their confrontation escalates.
It is possible to imagine a production in which the instructor is more predatory, and thus one where Carol’s charges seem more defensible.
But since Mamet protege William Macy (who originated the role of the teacher) directed the production, one must assume his interpretation reflects the playwright’s intentions.
If so, it reinforces the impression that there is more than a little of the misogynist in Mamet. Here, the man is essentially well-intentioned, while the woman is an unfeeling predator who is capable of being brainwashed. It’s not a fair fight.
“Picket Fences” handles this sort of subject with far more subtlety and even-handedness every Friday night on television.
The production, which was dropped from the Mark Taper Forum schedule after a dispute over casting, is not as sharp as one would like. Mamet’s trademark dialogue is as rapid-fire as ever, but Smith and Sedgwick don’t carry it off with the ease one would like.
The production’s most interesting element is Randy Kovitz’s choreography. It’s fascinating to watch the two of them circle around the office, with John constantly invading Carol’s personal space. Costumes and set are first-rate.