Everyone loses in the blistering new West End revival of David Mamet’s “Oleanna” — which I intend as a compliment. Both Mamet’s own Off Broadway premiere in 1992 and Harold Pinter’s production in London the following year coerced one to take sides as the short, scabrous teacher-student tussle reached its assaultive close. Were you with the verbally opaque, somewhat smug teacher John (played here by Aaron Eckhart)? Or did you rally instead to the inquiring, ultimately furious and always selectively intelligent Carol (Julia Stiles), the student who balks at words like “transpire” and “paradigm” while breezily employing such verbs as “countenance” and “recant”?
Well, guess what? Lindsay Posner’s exceedingly smart production now makes clear that there are no winners in Mamet’s bruising scenario, which catapults its two antagonists into a decidedly bleak abyss.
An initial glimpse of Stiles’ frightened, frustrated eyes gives a clear sense of the rocky road ahead, and Mamet’s script does the rest, coming to rest in a climactic brutality that, the play suggests, is humankind’s natural state — after all, Carol has created in John the very monster she has spent the play accusing him of being.
Posner’s staging is as revealing about this Mamet text as his equally starry West End revival last summer of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” was unilluminating and dull. Has the play dated? Hardly, even if issues of political correctness aren’t quite the socially galvanic industry they may once have been.
On the other hand, the recent attack by Naomi Wolf on her onetime Yale professor Harold Bloom for supposed indiscretions several decades before is the exact terrain trawled by “Oleanna,” which takes its title from a bygone folk song about the possibility of utopia only to come down on the side of the dystopia inhabited by two fairly disturbed individuals.
Although one thinks first of the differences that define the two characters — John, for instance, has a home and family, whereas Carol exists in apparent isolation — Posner points up the similarities between people occupying opposing points on a very damaged divide. When John speaks midway through the first act of having “an index of my badness,” it’s not such a leap from there to Carol’s declarative remark, “I’m bad,” as John, perhaps in sympathy but perhaps not, rests his hands on her shoulders, thereby planting the seed for the eruption still to come.
However much the play is most immediately understood as the story of Carol’s usurpation, one is hardly tempted to think of either side coming up trumps in a scenario that costs John his new home, his job and perhaps even his wife (that last touch, involving a telephone receiver that is left off the hook, is notably clever), while Carol must pay with her dignity, self-esteem — and the audience’s good will.
Stiles — in only her second professional stage appearance — is easily the most arresting of the three Carols I have seen, regardless of the extent to which Mamet rigs things to prompt an audible gasp from the audience as she mounts her decisive charge of rape.
Whereas previous Carols (Mamet’s own wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, included) played the character as a sexless automaton, Stiles cannily reinvents Carol as a real person with real frustrations, voicing an all-too-real mindset: The fury that more than ever accompanies our lack of comprehension in a society where civility exists a mere question mark away from chaos. Not for nothing is “Oleanna’s” refrain the urgently phrased question, “Do you see?” (The play’s usual answer is no less crucial: “I don’t understand.”)
Eckhart — like Stiles making his British stage debut — isn’t quite as revelatory, though there are obvious gains to be had from casting John a good decade or two younger than the “norm,” to use a word that is itself upended during the evening. More than ever, one feels John’s affinity on some level for Carol in all her questing complexity, which in turn enhances the credibility of his remark to her, “Perhaps we’re similar.”
And however much Eckhart’s vocal discomfort let him down at the perf caught (on this evidence, Stiles has the far more natural stage voice), his matinee-idol good looks raise the sexual stakes, even if Eckhart profitably plays against his appearance to cut a figure whose struggles are obvious well before the fists start to fly.
At first sight, Christopher Oram’s set may look a shade Spartan and drab for the human bullfight still to come, but it, too, has a cunning of its own. Long after Howard Harrison’s lighting has stopped casting cell-like shadows across the faceless back wall, one gets a sense of academe as courtroom — the performers enter from either side of the stage as if ready to face the jury — and as prison. That’s fair enough in a play that plunges you headlong into life’s unfairness, where language — the human race’s great salvation — does little but add to our sense of loss.