You will be redirected back to your article in seconds


Miscommunication more than gender politics is the central issue in this incendiary 1992 drama.

John - Bill Pullman Carol - Julia Stiles

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.

Popular on Variety

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.


Golden Theater; 804 seats; $116.50 top

Production: A Jeffrey Finn, Arlene Scanlan, Jed Bernstein, Ken Davenport, Carla Emil, Ergo Entertainment, Harbor Entertainment, Elie Hirschfeld, Rachel Hirschfeld, Hop Theatricals, Brian Fenty/Martha H. Jones, Center Theater Group presentation of a play in one act by David Mamet. Directed by Doug Hughes.

Crew: Set, Neil Patel; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Charles Means. Opened Oct. 11, 2009. Reviewed Oct. 8. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

With: John - Bill Pullman Carol - Julia Stiles

More Film

  • Over the Sea

    Macao Film Review: 'Over the Sea'

    The beginning is a fairy tale, or a nursery rhyme. A woman nurses her squalling baby in a house by an orchard near the sea. Sunlight slants in through the open windows, the mother hums a lullaby, and then brings her son outside and places him in a cot suspended from the apple-laden branches of [...]

  • CCA Film Nominations

    Critics' Choice: 'The Irishman,' 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Lead Movie Nominations

    “The Irishman” has picked up the most film nominations for the 35th annual Critics’ Choice Awards. The Martin Scorsese gangster drama goes into the awards show with 14 noms, including best picture, director, acting ensemble as well as best actor (Robert De Niro) and supporting actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), the Critics’ Choice Association [...]

  • Parasite

    LA Film Critics Announce 2019 Winners

    Members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. met today to vote on the year’s best cinema accomplishments. Recent winners of the group’s top prize include “Roma,” “Call Me by Your Name,” “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” “Boyhood,” “Her”/”Gravity” and “Amour.” List of winners below. Best Editing: Todd Douglas Miller, “Apollo 11” (Runner-up: Ronald Bronstein & Benny Safdie, [...]

  • Jumanji The Next Level

    Box Office: 'Jumanji 2' Kicks Off Overseas With $52 Million as 'Frozen 2' Powers Toward $1 Billion

    Disney’s “Frozen 2” skated past international box office competition again as the animated sequel propels toward the billion-dollar mark globally. “Frozen 2” generated another $90 million from 48 foreign territories, boosting its worldwide weekend haul to $124.9 million. After three weekends in theaters, Disney’s musical follow-up has made $919.7 million and should cross $1 billion [...]

  • Lily James

    Lily James Delivers Masterclass in Charm in Macao

    British actor, Lily James delivered a masterclass in charm and good humor at a seminar on Sunday at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao. Questioned on stage by one of the festival’s senior programmers, James brightly chatted her way through eight years of a screen career that has taken her from “Downton Abbey” to [...]

  • Avengers Endgame Lion King Frozen 2

    Disney Crushes Own Global Box Office Record With Historic $10 Billion

    Thanks to a record number of billion-dollar blockbusters, Disney has become the first studio in history to surpass $10 billion at the worldwide box office. Through Sunday, the studio has generated $3.28 billion in North America and $6.7 billion overseas for a global haul of $9.997 billion and is expected to officially cross the benchmark [...]

  • Takashi Miike

    Miike Takashi's Unusual Takes on Feminism and China

    Takashi Miike chuckles when you ask him if he’d called himself a feminist. “Maybe I’m not exactly, because when I use the word as a man, it feels like it might be condescending, or anti-woman,” he told Variety on the sidelines of the International Film Festival and Awards Macao, where his latest feature, the high-octane [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content