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Wellington Theater

“The first thing I realized about women is ‘they are people too,'” writes David Mamet in the essay “Women,” published in his 1989 collection Some Freaks. “‘Well, then,’ I thought, ‘they must have feelings too!,’ and I have spent the last twenty-five years trying to figure out what those thoughts and feelings are. The difficulty, of course, is that one wants something from women: notice, sex, solace, compassion, forgiveness; and that many times one wants it sufficiently desperately that it clouds one’s perception of what they want. And, in negotiations, it is never a good idea to lose sight of what your opponent wants.”

Oleanna, Mamet’s 1992 tragicomedy–bleak, blunt, and blistering, chilling and amusing in unsettlingly equal doses–might in part have been written to dramatize his essay’s thesis. Of the play’s multiple levels, the most sensational–the one that will “get the asses in the seats,” as the sleazy movie producer says in Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow–is its provocative portrait of the sexually charged showdown between John, a college teacher in his mid 40s, and Carol, a 20-year-old student who comes to him for help in his course, which she’s failing. Though John quickly diagnoses the cause of Carol’s intellectual dimness–“No one thinks you’re stupid. . . . You’re angry. Many people are”–he fails to comprehend how deep and dangerous her anger is. Moved by her tearful frustration, he offers words of caring, a reassuring pat, a slightly ribald joke, and a promise of private tutoring. Faster than you can say “Clarence Thomas,” he’s up on charges of elitism, sexism, sexual harassment, and–after he loses his temper and tries to shake some of his sense into Carol–attempted rape.

Dragging Clarence Thomas’s name in may strike some as offensive and others as irrelevant at this point–though when Oleanna premiered on Broadway a year ago, Anita Hill’s testimony was fresh in the public memory. But Mamet’s depiction of Carol and John’s disastrous “negotiations” might well be used as evidence that perhaps Thomas was innocent of sexual harassment. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Thomas–or John–is any less of a self-important asshole.

While Carol is wrong in her suggestion of carnal intention on John’s part, she’s on target in her more fundamental response to him: he’s a pompous, patriarchal posturer who’s long since lost touch with the young people he’s paid to teach. He’s not insincere when he says he likes Carol and wants to help her–but his compassion for her is fatally flawed by its roots in his own self-pity. He turns her desperation into a projection of his own anxieties–about his marriage, his new house, and especially about the tenure committee weighing his future. What Carol misreads as erotic interest is simply a needi- ness that is inappropriate–but all too common–in the teacher-student transaction.

She, meanwhile, is afraid of his feelings and her own–indeed, of anything ambiguous and confusing. When John, like almost any teacher who believes in stimulating his students’ thinking, skeptically challenges the role of higher education, it upsets her even more. She’s worked hard to get into college; she’s looking for answers, not more questions. Like Shaw’s Henry Higgins–and like Mamet himself as an artist–John sees his role as that of provocateur. Also like Higgins, John wants to prod Carol into a sense of her own power. He succeeds–but finds himself cast ruinously in the role of pig-malion.

By the climax, when John is provoked to act like the brute he’s accused of being, Oleanna has gone far beyond sexual politics. This play (whose title comes from a socialist utopia extolled in a Scandinavian folk song) registers cautionary concern, coming very close to despair, for the future of a society whose citizens are increasingly characterized by their separateness from each other. The free-thinking liberalism embodied by John seems to Mamet to have bred not liberation or even tolerance, but rather territorial fragmentation and hostility along lines of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, position, and–especially important here–age: drastic misunderstandings between the baby boomers (John’s generation, and Mamet’s) and the so-called twentysomethings exacerbate the traditional divisions between the young and the middle-aged. And since in a very real sense the ruthless absolutism of Carol and her ilk is directly traceable to the failed leadership of John and the system he represents, John gets exactly what’s coming to him, unfair as it is.

Seeking to make the implications of his fable as broad as possible, Mamet selectively skimps on details that would be deemed crucial in more traditional story telling. Some viewers will not find Carol’s transformation from insecure inarticulateness to crusading confidence believable–because Mamet doesn’t show us her crucial interaction with a cadre of PC advisers who offer her the certainty she seeks. He also doesn’t show us the cause of her sexual and emotional repression, though her troubled reaction when John mentions her father leaves plenty of room for speculation. Nor do we ever know what course John teaches–only that its textbook, which he wrote, is over Carol’s head in a way that fosters intense resentment. The issue between them is pedagogical ethics; but it might as well be the racism charged by black activists seeking to ban Huckleberry Finn, or the sexism charged by feminists bent on expunging Emily Bronte from college curricula, or the blasphemy charged by parents insisting on equal time for creationism in their kids’ science classes. At root isn’t ideology but insensitivity, exhibited by John when he mocks the educational success Carol pursues–and by Mamet in the irony that colors his “Women” essay.

Under Michael Maggio’s direction, Oleanna operates on another level too: the sheer dramatic suspense generated by the clash of two personalities whose conflicting aims and confusing quirks are gradually revealed through their language–distinctively stylized as usual in Mamet, though far less glib and coarse than in his earlier plays. Oleanna is nerve-jarringly packed with unfinished thoughts and fractured phrases, interrupted as often by the jangling of John’s phone as by the characters’ incoherence (which paves the way for Carol to misread John’s overtures). Daniel Mooney’s opening-night handling of John’s dialogue was a bit stiff, at least to ears accustomed to the fluidity with which actors like Joe Mantegna and W.H. Macy deliver Mamet’s special rhythms. But Mooney has John’s whiny tone, practiced classroom charm, and shallow sensitivity down pat.

Kara Zediker’s Carol, meanwhile, is virtually flawless, from the self-protective shyness of her first entrance to the infuriatingly serene severity of her final PC put-down; her mercurial performance is aided enormously by the form-disguising baggy brown tops and hostility-advertising red skirt created for her by costumer Birgit Rattenborg Wise. Kevin Rigdon, who lit the show on Broadway, does the same here; he also designed the spartan office setting, along the guidelines established on Broadway by the late designer Michael Merritt, to whom the play is dedicated. The only real technical flaw is the actors’ stagy, studied execution of B.H. Barry’s combat choreography; one hopes that will improve with time, and if so the play’s potentially explosive climax will achieve the shocking intensity it now lacks.

Even so, Oleanna is an extraordinarily rich and complex piece of theater that challenges its audience’s intellectual and emotional impulses and assumptions. If it invites viewers to take sides, it also warns them against doing so. The lesson here is the classic academic dictum: look beyond the surface, take nothing for granted. Or, in the business-world idiom Mamet’s so fond of, never lose sight of what your opponent wants.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.