John, a swaggering male university professor on the brink of attaining tenure, hosts one-on-one office hours with a seemingly self-loathing female student, Carol, who later accuses him of attempted rape. They both feel violated and subsequently attempt to claw their way toward common ground, succeeding instead in bringing to a violent head an increasingly tense war of words in which the battle lines alternately blur and sharpen from moment to moment. This is Oleanna, David Mamet’s play about an extreme he-said/she-said scenario. First produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1992, Center Theatre Group’s current revival at the Mark Taper Forum has all the gutsy bite of a brand new drama with societal skewering at its core. Tony Award-winning director Doug Hughes brings the brutal ballet of sexism and poisonous political correctness to life with expert help from actors Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman.
Stiles, a perennial Mamet performer with a firm grasp of the playwright’s sharp knack for terse, halting dialogue, originally appeared in Oleanna in London in 2004, and in Mamet’s films, State and Main and Edmond. Here, she speaks the language with utter faithfulness to the playwright’s intention, stuttering over her “I’s” and clipping her sentences to create the unfinished authenticity of overlapping conversation. She’s a pro at conveying Mamet’s exploration of the desperate human struggle to communicate deep feelings via the impossibly weak tool of language.
Problematic is the fact that neither Stiles nor Pullman are fast enough with the verbal trampling to drive home an essential point about the damage done to relationships when listening takes a back seat to talking. That said, both performers are up to the task of playing characters that are anything but straightforward. Is Carol setting up John by playing the clueless victim of an educational system to which she can’t relate? Has she come to his office to set a trap for a man she’s already tagged as a misogynistic threat to the social fabric, or is she simply a lost student who’s exploited by a master manipulator? Should sexism be shooed aside as meaningless stupidity or punished as social injustice? When is it okay for a teacher to make physical contact with a student? And on, and on…the questions are endless and this production successfully brings them all to the surface.
We see John’s so-called attempted rape play out in scene one, and then it’s up to us to decide whether or not what we saw is what Carol says it is. If the play is going to work, the audience must remain unsure about whose side to take. In order to plant seeds of doubt about the absolute truth of the situation, both characters must show sympathetic sides, which Stiles and Pullman both pull off in performance. If there’s any flaw in the directorial vision of Hughes, it’s that he tends to slant a bit toward the innocence of John, steering the character into sometimes dangerously likeable territory. It’s a credit to Hughes that the production has a sense of humor, but sometimes we’re laughing a bit too loudly at John’s perception that Carol is ridiculous. Still, this Oleanna mostly forces us to tune in and get angry about a subject that should warrant more than a few passionate shouting matches.
Through July 12 at the Mark Taper Forum. For Tickets, call 213.628.2772.