There are key phrases in David Mamet’s “Oleanna” that in their banal simplicity reveal as much about the two adversarial characters and their corrosive dilemma as all their heated verbiage combined. For frustrated student Carol, it’s “I don’t understand.” For her heedless professor John, it’s “I can’t talk right now.” And both of them favor multiple variations on “Do you see?” Miscommunication more than gender politics is the central issue in this incendiary 1992 two-hander, and that gulf is exposed with bristling conviction by Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles. But Doug Hughes’ meticulously calibrated production can’t correct the imbalance of a manipulative play that only feigns impartiality.
Written as what seems like a knee-jerk response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill circus of 1991, and the stranglehold of political correctness that was peaking around that time, the play remains provocative, even if it’s unlikely to spark the same impassioned debates it did 17 years ago. The big difference is it now seems more about the misinterpretation of words and intent than the then-hot-button issue of sexual harassment.
In this showdown between a liberal Ivy League college professor (Pullman), whose opaque manner might be read as smugness, and an academically insecure student (Stiles) with a chip on her shoulder the size of New England, Mamet stacks the deck too heavily in favor of the former to make the drama a fair contest — or to escape the charges of misogyny that have long dogged this play.
Carol is possibly the most complex female role created by Mamet, a writer whose women are more often ciphers than believably fleshed-out characters. But her switch from angry little-girl-lost to merciless destroyer of the patriarchal hegemony — and mascot of an unspecified “group” that clearly suggests some radical-feminist coven — is so rapid and calculating that all the vulnerability Stiles brings to the role can’t make Carol much more than a vigilante taking down a scapegoat.
That shortage of ambiguity in the heavy-handed central conceit is a significant hurdle, but Hughes’ sleek production is psychologically needling and uncomfortable to watch in a way that surely honors Mamet’s intentions.
Designer Neil Patel amplifies the abrasive nature of the material by imprisoning John’s improbably spacious, cherry wood-paneled office behind a wall of chilly metal blinds. They ascend and descend with an excruciating mechanical drone at the beginning and end of each scene, shutting out the wintry courtyard beyond and blinding their occupants to the world. Squeezed here into a single intermissionless act from the original two, the three scenes are clearly demarcated.
In the first, Carol appears petulant as she reveals her feelings of intellectual inadequacy. Her mood seesaws between tearfulness and prickly impatience as John’s attention is diluted by constant phone calls from his wife and lawyer about closing complications on the purchase of a new house. Even worse are his rambling reflections on himself and the impending confirmation of his tenure. Then there’s his earnest (or possibly mocking?) questioning of the value of higher education. While the character is not above reproach, his worst sins appear to be distraction, hypocrisy, windiness and condescension.
Nothing more untoward takes place than a consolatory hug and some poorly chosen words, but in scene two, Carol is back at John’s invitation to discuss a sexual harassment complaint she filed to the tenure committee. Why either party would consent to a second private audience after such a grievance had been aired is unclear. Why they would then opt for the third encounter that constitutes scene three is even less so, and just one reason “Oleanna” is more an intellectual construct than a completely credible dramatic situation.
That said, once they get through the mannered opening stretch, in which almost every thought is fragmented and every second word either bitten off or interrupted, Pullman and Stiles keep the argument airborne, the interplay taut and the tension visceral — right through to the disturbingly real climactic flash of violence.
Stiles (who played the role opposite Aaron Eckhart in a 2004 London production) has a tendency toward sulkiness that doesn’t do much to soften her impossible character. But her balance of agitation and self-possession at least keeps the audience guessing a while, even if Catherine Zuber’s three costumes for her could have been more subtle about indicating Carol’s progressive empowerment.
Pullman is a far more emotionally available actor, and his inherent affability may play a part in further destabilizing the play’s already shaky male-female equilibrium. Mamet makes us painfully aware of how much John has to lose, at one point even having the character question it all himself: “Am I entitled to my job, and my nice home, and my wife, and my family and so on.” The playwright later threatens the ultimate intellectual castration when Carol smacks John with a demand that he repudiate his book.
Pullman’s body language is transfixing — flinching and increasingly worn as her attack gains force and his every attempt to reason with her lands him deeper in the muck. He’s tense, twitchy and almost touching in his waffling certainty that Carol’s charges — no matter how carefully recontextualized to construe the most damaging intent possible — have no foundation.
The dynamic is certainly unsettling, and its investigation of the susceptibility of language and behavior to perceptions that can distort truth and shift power is compelling. But while Pullman makes John’s undoing a harrowing spectacle, the sheer acrimony of Mamet’s stance against Carol blunts the confrontation.