Oleanna an all-out celebrity brawl
When going to see Dough Hughes’ production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” bring your boxing gloves and fighting words. Currently playing at the Golden Theater on Broadway and featuring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, this all-out verbal (and sometimes physical) brawl presents the issue of sexual harassment and assault with the tagline, “Whatever side you take, you’re wrong.”
The play is presented without an intermission in three separate scenes, each taking place in the office of a college professor, John, played by Bill Pullman. The first scene finds Carol, Stiles’ character, pleading for a raised grade; she simply does not understand the course content.
The production rests heavily on Stiles and Pullman’s shoulders, but they carry it with ease and pride. The interactions between Carol and John, although shocking, never seem unrealistic. With great performances from both, the only thing that may stand in the way of audience enjoyment is Mamet’s writing.
Leaving us as confused as Carol feels, the dialogue is classic Mamet. Each scene is spotty, often trailing off and leaving out words that would provide a context to the conversation. These blank spaces in dialogue keep the audience members from completely understanding Carol’s problem and John’s response. Like trial evidence, the scattered scenes are often ambiguous, causing the viewer to constantly change allegiance when Carol eventually accuses John of sexual assault.
In the first scene Stiles, best known for her roles in the “Bourne” series, “Save the Last Dance,” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” remains centralized while Pullman flits about aimless and distracted from Carol’s complaint. Pullman builds the tension throughout the play, embodying a man who is about to be sent over the edge. By the final “fight” scene, his outrage seems natural and even justifiable.
Part of this tension is strengthened by the constant interruption of technology. Just when the characters seem to be approaching a hint of understanding, John is interrupted by his phone. The dangerous intrusion of constant communication seems a more relevant moral lesson today than when the play made its premiere performance in 1992. The phone is just one example of the effective use of repetition applied throughout the play.
The repetition takes an ironic turn as the show progresses and Carol emerges as a strong, assertive female, gradually breaking John down into a passive and helpless victim. At one point John even mutters, “I do not understand,” Carol’s mantra from the opening scene when she first approached the professor about her grade. Carol even begins to mimic John’s staging from the first scene while John simply meanders about or stand immobile.
Little details, like lighting design, makes the tension tangible. As Carol progresses from a reclusive character to a vocal force, night turns into day, with only “sunlight” lighting the last scene when Carol’s dominance becomes too much for John to handle.
Another important detail is the office door. During the characters’ first conversation the door is shut; by the last scene Carol makes a point to leave the door open, drawing out her actions in order to draw John’s attention.
Character movements, lighting, and prop usage make the final breakdown a result of what is left unsaid rather than what is directly communicated between the characters. There is a sense that John’s frustration lies in being silenced by Carol’s accusations.
To alleviate the bewilderment the audience may feel after Mamet’s knock-out conclusion, the production has “Take a Side: The Oleanna Talk-Back Series.” After each performance two panelists will take the stage, discuss the show with respect to their area of expertise and then field questions from the audience. Panelists range from fellow Broadway actors to psychotherapists and lawyers.
This 20 minute series provides a much needed breather after the performance and a chance to leave the theater on either Carol or John’s side.
Meghan Dixon can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.