Zemfira Stage, in its serviceable production of this incendiary David Mamet play, does an interesting thing: it diffuses the issues of gender exploitation and political correctness, and allows us to see what is at the bottom of the play, which is the deliberate, political misuse of language.
The plot is straightforward enough – two Acts, two characters in a single set: a college professor’s office. Carol (Christine Lange), an education student, has come to her professor (Jay Tilley) to see if she can, somehow, achieve a passing grade. The professor – the program book gives his name as John, but it is never used in the play – is a self-aggrandizing windbag on the verge of tenure, and he seizes this opportunity to inflict his gaseous educational theories on Carol. What follows is a festival of incomprehensible jargon, bad metaphors and irrelevant personal anecdotes. The gist of it is that education is “hazing”, breaking down the student’s own creative and imaginative impulses. Carol valiantly struggles to write all this down, though you can tell she has no idea what it means. John struts up and down the room, periodically laying a patronizing hand on Carol’s shoulder. Carol grimaces, and keeps on taking notes.
Tilley makes Professor John as unattractive and unsympathetic as he possibly can within the confines of the text, barking at his wife over his cell phone and then flashing a greasy smile at the terrified Carol. When he spouts his half-baked educational theories he takes on the aspects of a man in love — with the sound of his own voice. When he meanders over to Carol’s chair to lay a hand on her shoulder, Tilley, a big man, makes it look like an act of aggression.
In the second Act, the tables are turned. Carol has filed charges against John with the Tenure Committee, and he is desperately trying to talk her out of them. She has accused him of sexism and patriarchalism, of using his knowledge and status to place himself in a position of power over his students, of being an instrument of oppression. She characterizes one of his irrelevant illustrations, involving sex and class, as pornography. She has joined a group of like-minded women who are, she claims, struggling against campus oppression, and has become their spokesperson. John maintains the old arrogance – her complaint will be dismissed, he assures her – but it is clear that he knows that something serious is afoot, and that it may not all go well with him. And indeed it does not; Carol and her group prevail and she moves into a position to dictate his class reading list to him.
By making the student-teacher encounter in the first Act so catastrophic, Zemfira forces us to see the root of the evil in Oleanna – the professor’s imprecise, sloppy, lazy use of language. What Carol does to him in the second Act is payback: she misuses the language in a way which puts her in a position of power over him. By torturing the language, and squeezing facts and events into hot-button phrases, Carol gets the results she wants. She has learned more from the professor than he knows.
Lange and Tilley have some problems with the difficult first Act. In particular, the play’s opening minutes – sentence fragments, some of them coming hard upon one another – are weak. But by the middle of the Act they are in easy stride, and they are up to the emotional fireworks of the second Act. Lange does a nice progression from the frightened and frustrated student to the self-confident accuser. It is easy to buy these characters, and director Blek’s interpretation of them.
The venue is another story. The Lyceum, on the second floor of a lovely Alexandria museum, is more suited to a recital or lecture than to theater. The entire stage-right area is dominated by an enormous piano, which is draped in velvet. There are no wings and, seemingly, no dressing rooms and the actors are thus forced to change behind a stage-right curtain.
I am obliged to tell you that the set consists of a chair for Carol, a chair for the Professor, and a velvet-draped table, representing the Professor’s desk. In a play like this, the spartan quality of the set is of no importance to me, but my editor believes it to be significant, and so I am compelled to note it.
By David Mamet
Directed by Zina T. Bleck
Produced by Zemfira Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running Time: 1:45 including one intermission.
When: Thurs through Sat at 8 p.m. until March 14. Additional matinee at 3 p.m. on the 14th.
Where: The Lyceum, 201 South Washington Street, Alexandria, VA
Tickets: $15 ($10 matinee). For tickets call 703 318.0619.