Volume 79, Number 22 | November 04 - 10, 2009
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THEATER review

Dated ‘Oleanna’ still ‘packs a controversial punch’

By Scott Harrah

Seventeen years after its original 1992 Off-Broadway production, this revival of David Mamet’s “Oleanna” still packs a controversial punch by vividly exploring male dominance, testosterone-fueled pride, and women’s issues.

The one-act drama shows three encounters between university professor John (Bill Pullman) and his student, Carol (Julia Stiles). John is an egotistical intellectual about to get tenure at the prestigious school. Carol is an emotionally disturbed student who’s failing his class. The twists and turns of “Oleanna” mostly address “he said/she said” claims of a well-intentioned professor and a conniving young woman who is hell bent on destroying him for selfish reasons.

Unlike last season’s revival of Mamet’s “Speed the Plow,” “Oleanna” lacks the staccato dialogue that makes Mamet’s work so inimitable.  It is also mired in dated issues of alleged sexual harassment that were topical in 1992, right after the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill scandal. Although sexual harassment exists today, “Oleanna” still comes across as somewhat of a period piece. It’s debatable whether a character like Carol would get away with such trumped-up claims in modern academia, with all the legal protections for professors and students.

Neither of the characters is particularly likable or sympathetic, but Pullman and Stiles give outstanding performances that leave things open to individual interpretation — allowing audiences to take sides in this cerebral power struggle.  Stiles portrays Carol as a woman whose devious behavior, energetic tantrums, and mind games make her easy to despise. When she screams at John “don’t call your wife ‘baby,’ ” after he makes a phone call, it’s evident that Carol is a woman whose crush on her professor has reached psychotic proportions.

Director Doug Hughes keeps the action moving at a frantic pace. The intense narrative and ugly scenes of emotional and physical catharsis are not always easy to watch. That said, however, the play’s ability to evoke such potent levels of anger and divisiveness from its audience makes “Oleanna” a provocative, worthy experience.

Written by David Mamet. Directed by Doug Hughes. Open Run; at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit www.OleannaOnBroadway.com.

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