When I mentioned to a fellow theater writer that I was going to see the new Broadway production of Oleanna with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, he moaned, "Oh, I'm so sick of that play."
My colleague may have seen David Mamet's sexual harassment drama one too many times, but his sentiment struck me as more representative of the feelings of a full-time theater maven than of those of an average theatergoer. The shocked reactions of the crowd at last night's performance bore me out.
In the play, a college student named Carol (Ms. Stiles) first comes to her pedantic, distracted professor (Mr. Pullman) for academic help, then files a sexual harassment complaint against him. Her perception of what has occurred in his office – all on stage, right in front of us – seems monstrously skewed, however. And as Ms. Stiles noted last night in a post-performance bloggers' Q&A session, Mamet's script also leaves open the possibility that Carol (backed by a somewhat mysterious group of "those who suffer what I suffer") has set out to target and entrap the professor from the beginning, though the actress has not chosen to specifically play it that way.
Distinct, shocked thrills went through the audience each time Carol's attacks on John were further revealed. She certainly appears villainous, but nothing is black and white in this tale. John is far from perfect. In trying to make his points, he has told stories from his own life that seem inappropriately personal for a teacher-student relationship; he has even offered to change her grade if she visits him for more tutoring. Also, as Carol's accusations have John on the verge of losing not only his career but his family, she evinces some sympathy for him, some second thoughts.
A post-show audience talkback session with a moderator and a panel of two attorneys brought out audience feelings just as strong as when the play was new in 1992. As one of the lawyer-panelists pointed out, public policy on sexual harassment was in its infancy then, affording little protection to men against abusive or frivolous harassment claims. But although the particulars of the case might be a little less realistic now, Mamet's play – at least in my opinion – was never meant to be entirely time-topical, despite its then straight-from-the-headlines theme. Its stychomythic, stream-of-consciousness dialogue, which at times reduced Mr. Pullman to chirps and groans, gives it a slightly hallucinogenic feel, and the mysterious "group" – the uncertainty of what's really going on behind Carol's complaints – reminds me more of a Margaret Atwood dystopia than a legal drama. And that's leaving aside the deep questions raised by the play about the purpose and value of academia. The sharp performances in this production bring out the Kafkaesque universality of the story. Whether in a democracy or a dictatorship, we're often at the mercy of forces we don't understand and over which we have no control.
I imagined Oleanna might seem dated in 2009. Several hundred audience members last night proved otherwise. Some of them may have been drawn by the Hollywood star power of the cast, but they left with much to think about.
Oleanna by David Mamet, directed by Doug Hughes and starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, is now in previews. It opens October 11 at the Golden Theatre.
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