Stage: Oleanna

Under Doug Hughes' direction, Oleanna seems less like a "battle of the sexes" and more like a commentary on miscommunication.

Mark Taper Forum

Los Angeles

(213) 628-2772

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David Mamet’s 1992 jeremiad against the forces of radical feminism now “seems hopelessly dated,” said Paul Hodgins in the Orange County, Calif., Register. A real “hot-button pusher” in the age of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Oleanna was once merely defiantly politically incorrect. But time has been unkind, and this revival exposes Mamet’s intellectually dishonest intentions. Bill Pullman stars as college professor John, with Julia Stiles as Carol, a student who threatens his tenure bid when she alleges sexual harassment. John commits such obvious “sins of inappropriateness”—putting his arm around Carol’s shoulder, telling her he “likes” her—that his character lacks credibility. Carol, meanwhile, goes from mousey to polished feminist ideologue at unbelievable speed. Touches like that make Oleanna less a play than a “shrill, polemical diatribe.”

I’ve always considered Oleanna one of Mamet’s lesser plays, said Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times. It’s true that the deck is “shamelessly stacked” in favor of John’s poor-me position, and Mamet rubs our noses “not just in Carol’s distorting wrath but also in everything John has to lose by her allegations”—including his house, his marriage, and his career. Yet this production made me see Oleanna in a new light. Director Doug Hughes focuses less on the surface arguments about identity politics and more on the play’s real subject, which is “the way in which language serves as a subterfuge for insecure power games.” Mamet’s play isn’t really a “battle of the sexes,” after all. It’s a “war of words.”

Kudos to the actors for making that war entertaining, said Bob Verini in Variety. Pullman nails John’s self-righteous, “liberal-humanist self-image.” He often seems to be pleading to the audience as if they were his other students, who have understood all along what their professor “meant” to say. Stiles, in perfect contrast, gives Carol a “literal, even fundamentalist” approach to the world, which allows for a radically different interpretation of her professor’s words and deeds. Through these highly original performances, the play reveals itself to be less a ­“fictional he-said/she-said” than a commentary on “eternal miscommunication among individuals and cultures alike.” Audiences willing to embrace this Oleanna will be “amply rewarded with insight into our own ambiguous hearts.”

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