The linguistic pyrotechnics of playwright David Mamet are on full display in the bruising Broadway revival of "Oleanna," which opened Sunday at the Golden Theatre. It's Mamet's incendiary take on the consequences of political correctness _ specifically involving sexual harassment _ and how language helps to facilitate the battle.
The play caused quite a stir when it was staged off-Broadway in 1992. And there's no reason to expect that this fine new production won't generate a similar response, even among people who saw it some 17 years ago. That's when the then still-smoldering case of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill _ involving her accusations of sexual harassment by the Supreme Court nominee and his claims of a "high-tech lynching" _ made the two-character drama feel as if it were ripped from current headlines.
In "Oleanna," we are in the rarefied world of academia. Designer Neil Patel provides a genteel display of Victorian buildings beyond the large windows in a college professor's office where the verbal sparring _ and more _ take place.
In one corner: John, a nervous, distracted teacher, played by Bill Pullman, anxiously awaiting tenure and the closing on a new house. In the other: Carol, one of his female students, portrayed by Julia Stiles, struggling with his course yet fiercely protective of her rights and those of her unnamed "group," perhaps a collection of vigilant feminists. It's not entirely clear, which is one of the weird, unanswered questions in Mamet's play.
Pullman's professor is distracted and disheveled, a man eager to help this young woman and not realizing, at first, how his seemingly innocuous comments will be interpreted. Stiles' student is wary and more than a bit angry, a scowl plastered across her face. Therein lie the ingredients of Mamet's inflammatory cat-and-mouse game.
"Oleanna" is a fiendishly difficult play to pull off, but Pullman and Stiles, under the precise, careful direction of Doug Hughes, make the most of Mamet's seemingly imprecise language. The dialogue is full of starts, stops and backtracks that, bit by bit, build to an explosive climax.
Pullman's open demeanor, a countenance that morphs into desperation, is just right for this professor, whose world _ academic, financial and personal _ is unraveling around him. And Stiles' icy demeanor is tinged with a hint of sexual awareness, a clarity of purpose despite the woman's claims that she is lost in the professor's class.
"Oleanna" does its best to rattle everyone, the characters on stage as well as the theatergoers. What's more, the constant interruption of the professor's telephone not only makes him jumpy, but the audience as well. Maybe more so these days because in 2009 the ringing of cell phones has become a ubiquitous annoyance at just about every theatrical event.
"Oleanna" is about the use of power as well. And, in this case, the professor, by virtue of his title, holds the upper hand, at least at the beginning of the evening. What makes the play so fascinating is to watch that authority slowly slip away and see what happens when words just won't do.
Mamet's penchant for obscure titles _ "Speed-the-Plow" anyone? _ also is on display in "Oleanna." The title apparently refers to an old folk song and to a planned utopian community that never was built. Is a harmonious relationship between man and woman impossible to achieve? Judging from the results on view at the Golden Theatre, "uneasy" might be the best that can be achieved.