This David Mamet scorcher about sexual harassment — a female student shatters a prof’s professional and personal life with generally unfair charges — touches on an issue that’s white-hot and extremely provocative, as evidenced by numerous vociferous audience reactions during the opening performance.
Mamet, noted for his macho male characters, has stacked the deck somewhat. He shows the man, John, as guilty of little more than being pompous, patronizing and unfeeling, while he transforms the woman, Carol, from an insecure, almost-monosyllabic whiner to a domineering, vindictive and articulate feminist in an incredibly short time.
As a partial explanation, he has her become strongly influenced by an unnamed group.
Yet Mamet doesn’t crack the bonds of reasonableness, especially since academia today is one of the areas rife with harassment suits. Such challenges, as this play makes clear, run headlong into another thicket — the limits of academic freedom. The problem in a nutshell: Is education crippled if teachers are fearful of saying anything that might offend someone?
John, for instance, expounds at length on the shortcomings of education, even terming the process “hazing.” Carol, among her other grievances, considers such talk belittling to her because of the effort she’s had to exert to get into college.
That’s just one small part of the missed communication between the two, not helped by John continually interrupting Carol or, worse, repeatedly taking time out to answer his phone and discuss domestic issues with his wife.
Harassment, real or imagined, is the hot-button problem here, but the play is really about power — man over woman, teacher over student, and bureaucracy over all.
William Anton is terrific as John — at times sensitive and caring, often smug and pedantic, and finally furious. Kathleen Dennehy is less successful as Carol, but she’s hampered by the script, which makes her character not only unsympathetic but underdeveloped. Her first-act self-pity and stammerings, for instance, make the woman seem so neurotic as to be retarded.
Jack O’Brien’s direction effectively disguises most script limitations, and he’s aided considerably by the design work. Robert Brill’s set attests to keen observation of the spare, disheveled offices of academe; David C. Woolard’s costumes show an awareness of campus fashions, particularly Carol’s skirts and camping boots.
Ashley York Kennedy’s lighting, pouring through John’s side window, effectively indicates the time of day, and Jeff Ladman’s sound is highlighted by scene-opening and closing crescendos.
The title comes from the folk ballad “Oleanna,” with the line, “The women do all the work.”