Oleanna Theatre Review - David Mamet's Intense One Act Fires Up The Mark Taper

It would seem innocent enough to the outside observer. Then again, doesn’t it always depend on the glass through which you view a situation?

John ( Bill Pullman) is a popular college professor who has just been told he is being considered for tenure. It means security for him and his family. It means a raise with which to buy the new house his wife always wanted. Moreover, it means he is good at what he loves to do; it means he’s a good teacher. And he demonstrates as much when he takes one afternoon out of his busy life, and puts everything on hold to address the deep concerns of one of his students.  Carol ( Julia Stiles) comes to him insisting that she simply does not understand his class and dreads the failing grade he has just given her.

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in "Oleanna"

John’s heart goes out to the student who seems legitimately distraught, confused and hopeless. Warding off a continual barrage of phone calls by landline and by cell, the instructor decides to give Carol another shot.  In an attempt to earn her trust, he tosses all traditional and institutional rapport and structure out the window. He relates to her candidly, anecdotally and spontaneously, focusing less on the exact content of the discourse and more on seeking out the point of entry for her, the moment when she gets it. One crying fit and five phone interruptions later, John and Carol briefly revel in a brief meeting of the minds. Success.

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in "Oleanna"

A few days later, John is horrified to learn he is being investigated for using lude, aggressive sexual rhetoric at a student, Carol. She has concluded that John is sexist, elitist and she (and her group) wish to make him understand that his behavior is unacceptable, which is why she detailed their private tutoring session in a written complaint to the tenure board. How could carol have gotten things so horrible misconstrued? How will John get her to recant before he loses everything?

Oleanna is a two player One –Act that does not feel malevolent at first, but quickly darkens in the second scene. It is a play about the evils of speaking candidly without the bit of political correctness. Likewise, it demonstrates how two different people can draw opposite conclusions from an experience that they indeed experienced together. Although it is clear that John never meant to malicious or abuse his influence, for a while it looks as though Carol has a valid argument based on her own personal experiences and perspectives.

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in "Oleanna"

This production was good. There was an imposed cadence on the language for several segments that was fairly distracting. However, I assume it was a choice to adhere strictly to the text and there apparently is something distinctly Mametian about the choice that I am unaware of. The play, although far from a feel good story, was classic Mamet in its fast fire language and intellectual density. I only wish the opponents in this story were more evenly matched so there could be some truer depth to the philosophical debate of abuses of power and sexual intimidation. There’s just too much ground to cover in one act.

Oleanna starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles is currently through July 12, 2009 at:

Mark Taper Forum
at the Music Center
downtown Los Angeles
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

For Ticket Call: 213-628-2772


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