The brand new Dark Horse Theatre Company arrived with a splash last week by mounting a new production of Oleanna, David Mamet’s controversial two-person drama about an academic counseling session gone horribly wrong. Oleanna is good, old-fashioned socio-political drama at its best, and it’s a surprisingly polished production for a fledgling company. No, actually, it’s compelling. Bring a date or some friends, watch the action unfold—then adjourn to a local watering hole to argue about it into the wee hours of the morning.
Penned not long after the controversial Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings and almost certainly inspired by this very first reality TV drama, Oleanna moves the battle of the sexes to the shabby but uncluttered office of John, a humanities professor who’s up for tenure and trying to close on a new house at the same time. Enter Carol, a student who can’t seem to grasp the subject matter of John’s course. She’s afraid she’ll fail and ruin her transcript and is seeking advice and help—perhaps.
As the play begins, Carol (Arianne Warner) enters John’s (Doug Mattingly’s) office as nervous as a cat. She’s not entirely certain she’s going to make any headway on improving her grade. Making matters worse, she seems almost totally clueless about what she’s supposed to be learning in John’s class.
John shows some concern for Carol’s plight but is continuously interrupted on the phone by either his wife or his real estate agent, both of whom are trying to wrap up a real estate contract with some recalcitrant sellers. In the meantime, Carol furiously scribbles notes on everything John is saying to her during their circular conversations. When he’s not on the phone, however, John seems more interested in telling stories about himself and musing on his impending award of tenure, the Holy Grail of any junior professor.
The meeting ends sloppily. Carol is about ready to spill her guts to John when the phone rings which eliminates the moment forever. Sensing how distraught she is, John consoles her and offers a few one-on-one tutoring sessions in his office to help her remediate her problems. He gently touches her on two occasions to reassure her. And the meeting is over. Of course, as anyone in Washington will immediately know, those two asexual touches will be sending everything over the cliff in short order.
In the second of the play’s three scenes—separated by brief blackouts—the tables are turned. Carol has been supported by a mysterious “group” that’s encouraged her to file a complaint on John, layering on an ever-growing list of charges. Involved in an academic witch-hunt reminiscent of the Star Chamber, John loses both his tenure and his employment. Events build inexorably toward an inevitable and unpleasant finale.
In recent years, David Mamet has taken a turn toward the conservative side of the aisle. Oleanna may have been an early signal of that shift in that it’s John who appears the chief victim here, at least initially, rather than Carol. John does nothing overtly inappropriate in the first act, aside from the usual professorial pomposity and plumage displays of erudition. Yet he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to addressing—or touching—a female student in today’s politically charged environment.
But Carol, too, is equally ambiguous. She acts like a frightened mouse in the first act, impulsively writing down everything that’s said, hoping, it seems, to find the key to passing John’s course. But when she shows up in the second stanza dressed like a businesswoman, speaking boldly and imperiously, and hurling charges against the professor left and right, we wonder where it all came from.
For the second scene is the very first time we hear of her “group.” It also appears that one of the female professors who leads the “group” is involved with John’s tenure committee. Is this a set up job? Was Carol a plant? Were her careful notes a compilation of “evidence” to be used to make an example of the “male patriarchy”? PC skullduggery like this remains alive and well on many college campuses where racial and gender victimology is used to advance some careers and destroy others while scoring political points. The Clarence Thomas hearings may have been the germ of Mamet’s idea, but we’ve seen this movie many times since.
Yet this is all conjecture, which is Mamet’s intent. One senses he sides with John, albeit ambiguously. The fact is that all parties involved behave badly or inappropriately, the crusading gender feminists most egregiously, but playing the game like everyone else. Mamet actually catches the essence of contemporary American academia whose professors are so out of touch with reality that college often seems like a time-warp, trapping everyone in his or her own worst high school nightmare.
Mamet also touches on the salient point that, whether within or without academia, males have to be far more cautious in the work environment than they used to, perhaps insanely so. Eternal vigilance is not only the price of freedom. It’s the price of not getting sued. Men are not wholly innocent, of course. But one extreme of behavior hardly justifies another.
This is all great intellectual stuff. But it takes a dedicated pair of actors to pull it off, and Dark Horse is fortunate to have found the right pair.
As John, Doug Mattingly is the embodiment of your garden-variety humanities professor. Accustomed to living in his own little world and accustomed to having others, like minor satellites, orbit around the solar flare of his brilliance, Mattingly’s John is a guy who can intellectualize anything but can empathize with nothing unless he can directly relate it to his own experience. It’s the casual narcissism of the professoriate, less sexist than it is pompous and irritating. He just doesn’t get it. Mattingly portrays this type with almost exasperating accuracy. We cringe when we see how his little phrases, touches, and gestures are going to send him down the rabbit hole. But he never does.
Arianne Warner portrays a far more ambiguous Carol. She seems so helpless in the first scene that we never suspect she’s a plant—until she reappears acting like a prosecutor in the second scene. Then again, maybe she’s innocent. Perhaps she simply carried her dilemma to the radical campus feminist “group” who, schooled in agitprop, supplied her with a lawyer and prepped her with all she needed to destroy the professor. But Warner never really tips her hand, which makes the whole evening deliciously complicated. Mamet seems to have drawn her as the villain in this piece, but Warner doesn’t make it easy for us to agree.
The evening’s proceedings were crisply directed by Dark Horse’s young founder, Natasha Parnian, who moved things along like a seasoned veteran in this very promising beginning for her new company. Kudos to all involved for a very successful launch.
by David Mamet
Directed by Natasha Parnian
Produced by Dark Horse Theatre Company
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Oleanna closes June 19, 2010.
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