David Mamet?s two-character drama Oleanna centers on a he-said-she-said confrontation between a professor and his student. So it only seemed appropriate to have a male critic and a female critic assess this exploration of gender politics, sexual harassment, and political correctness. For our critics, though, there?s no gender divide.
Simon Vozick-Levinson: Oleanna is meant to be a play of provocative ideas. While the new Broadway revival presents plenty of provocation, actual ideas are harder to find as Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles — playing, respectively, a professor and a student at an unnamed college — spend an hour and fifteen minutes shouting at each other.
Leah Greenblatt: But it?s not even engaging, linearly plotted shouting. When the play premiered 17 years ago, America was still immersed in the fallout of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, and sexual harassment was a hot-button issue. What I don’t understand is the urge to resurrect something so dated, a show that?s both underwritten and completely overwritten when it comes to Stiles? grandstanding PC-speak in the last two thirds. Weirdly, this isn?t the play?s first revival: Stiles performed the show five years ago in London with Aaron Eckhart, and she and Pullman wrapped up an L.A. run earlier this year. Maybe marquee names are attracted to its two-person set-up? I?m having a really hard time finding any other justification to remount this work.
SVL: I give Pullman credit for trying his best to make his character believable. The same can?t necessarily be said of Stiles’ alternately catatonic and furiously articulate performance. Ultimately, though, the fault lies with the script: Mamet’s staccato dialogue style just isn’t very well suited to scoring ideological points.
LG: For me, the staccato thing also founders because Stiles and Pullman fail to pick up the tail ends of each other’s half-formed sentences enough for it to sound like anything other than a poor line reading. All these ”But I –”s and ”Didn?t you –”s just get left hanging in the air — or interrupted by another grating onstage phone call. I?ll concede that the interruptions definitely improve in the final two thirds, but it’s hugely distracting early on. And Pullman comes across as such an affable, bumbling teddy bear of a man that his targeting by Stiles’ inarticulate woman-child turned aggressive ideological shrew just seems absurd, and throws the entire play off-balance.
SVL: By the play’s end, their behavior has become so wildly inconsistent that neither one feels like a real human being. They’re paper dolls, fighting out political battles that lost whatever currency they had years ago.
LG: Agreed! Stiles? character has almost zero internal logic. How can she mulishly claim not to understand the words ”indictment” and ”paradigm” when she repeatedly tosses off phrases like ”patriarchal prerogative”? Also, the number of times she parrots the professor’s dialogue by repeating his last three or four words as a question was obscenely irritating. It felt like stalling tactics for a playwright with a thesis, but no play. How can we as an audience get invested when each character?s actions feel like the result of some random wheel spin — or worse, the writer?s shortcomings?
SVL: It certainly isn?t easy. Despite a few half-hearted stabs at subtlety, Mamet seems most intent on goading the audience into fuming at some imaginary campus PC police. Instead, his own contrived attempts to court controversy end up being the most outrageous thing about the play.
LG: If anything, his creation of Stiles’ character is more offensive for being so poorly drawn than for making her a sort of straw(wo)man for political correctness. If you?re going to throw the word ”rape” around onstage, you better have something stronger to go on than a juvenile urge to shock; the entire audience gasped, and not in a good way.
SVL: I know I gasped. Such over-the-top gestures sabotage whatever meaningful debates Mamet may have hoped to open up. The only question echoing in my mind as I left the theater was: Why would a writer as smart as Mamet stoop to such lazy, irresponsible caricatures of serious issues like sexual harassment and academic freedom?
LG: He adds nothing important or meaningful to the discussion; in fact, he degrades it. If you just want to see movie stars, go rent 10 Things I Hate About You to see Stiles play a feisty, fully realized female character. And for Pullman, I say Spaceballs. Everybody likes Spaceballs. C-
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