By Alynda Wheat
June 08, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Craig Schwartz

It’s not that David Mamet hates women, it’s just that based on work like Oleanna, it’s entirely possible to come to that conclusion. Oddly enough, that just might be a position Mamet could respect, given that Oleanna ultimately comes down to a very high-stakes game of he-said, she-said, with neither party really saying much at all.

Playing at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, Oleanna stars Bill Pullman as John, an East Coast university professor on the verge of tenure, and Julia Stiles, reprising her 2004 London role as Carol, his confused, militant (and all the more militant for her confusion), failing student. While Carol sits in his office, a tight chignon sweeping the hair off her troubled brow, John tries to help her, but is constantly interrupted by phone calls from his wife. Growing in frustration, Carol also peppers the professor with interruptions about how she can’t follow the class, assumes that she’s stupid, and doesn’t understand the words that he uses (why can’t he just say ”model” instead of ”paradigm,” she demands). As she grows ever more frenzied with worry about her grade, he touches her shoulder to calm her down and she recoils. This, you may surmise, is when all hell breaks loose.

Written in the wake of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill sexual harassment hearings, Oleanna is tightly focused on the inability of the supposedly intellectual to communicate the most basic intentions, and a battle of the sexes in which women have the power to cry ”rape,” but men can actually do it. When the lights come back up for Act II, Carol enters John’s office, having complained to the tenure board that John behaved inappropriately toward her. In the blink of a blackout, she morphs from self-doubting pupil into what certain blowhards refer to as a ”feminazi,” bound notebook in hand, recounting each of his misinterpreted misdeeds. She’s pompous, hateful, and practically gleeful, anticipating that he’ll lose his job, his new house, maybe even his precious family, because she has the power to make it happen. ”You asked me why I came here,” she tells him. ”I came here to instruct you.”

Right there, Mamet’s got us. Because who among us wouldn’t be ready to slap such an entitled, punishing shrew? Who could withstand a barrage like that from a privileged brat? Who wouldn’t want him to hurt her? And maybe that would be a moment of fascinating contemplation for an audience, realizing that a playwright with his 90-minute intermission-free battle of half-wits has brought us to a point of such rage. But in the first possible second we’re able to think clearly, we realize it’s all been a terrible manipulation. In its best productions, Oleanna is a Rorschach test, with audience sympathies lying either with a confused girl against her lech of a professor, or far more commonly, with the innocent man, set upon by hateful women (since clearly his unseen wife is no picnic, either). But in having Pullman play John as a distracted naif to Stiles’ emasculating priss, director Doug Hughes seems perfectly happy to conspire with Mamet to stack the deck against Carol. But isn’t it more compelling to even the odds, forcing the audience into a debate with itself, rather than turning them into a lynch mob against this cartoon of modern womanhood? Shouldn’t the point be to ask ourselves whether we’re all too preoccupied with political correctness, not whether we brought a knife so we can cut this (there’s no other word for it) bitch? Mamet masterfully forces feminism, political correctness, even academia to its theoretical extremes, turning them into dangerous, poisoned concepts threatening to undermine logic itself. But why? Society survived the confirmation hearings. Clarence Thomas even got the job.

The irony is that Mamet’s words wouldn’t carry as much weight, nor Hughes’ staging as much force, if it weren’t for the fact that the actors are both very good. Pullman does John credit, yanking him out of the belfry of his ivory tower, and giving him a soul. We feel for the guy, stuck as he is between a fragile girl taking her first swing at wielding sexual power, and his own stupidity in repeatedly asking an alleged victim back to his office — alone — to try to get her to recant. And it can be no easy trick to purposely trip and stumble one’s way through Mamet’s staccato prose. Stiles has the harder job, though, finding some semblance of an actual human being in this paper tiger of a character. Still, she attacks Carol with vigor, giving her words all the force they lack in sense, unflinching in the assumed moral correctness of her position.

That’s a bit of a problem, though. Because Stiles is so good, we hate Carol all the more. No one is suggesting that actors can never play vile roles, or that they deserve a share of the blame anywhere close to that shouldered by the author of their lines, but they are (even the tiniest bit) complicit. They’re part of the equation that turns an otherwise rational audience into raging sexists, longing to see a mean, self-centered girl destroyed physically, just as she’s destroyed her teacher professionally. And maybe that’s a reason to see Oleanna, provocative as it is, in the roughest sense of the word. Because in a way, Mamet is right — there are interesting debates to be had about language, sex, power, and the abuse of all three…just not the ones he intended. C+