Theatre Is Easy: “Oleanna”

Written by Theatre, Theatre Is Easy

BOTTOM LINE: A nicely executed production with two great performances. This play is intense in all the right ways.

David Mamet is known for writing sharp, biting dialogue and creating great character conflict. His plays (Speed-the-Plow, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross) generally present uncomfortable situations through which his characters must navigate using whatever tools necessary to achieve their final goals — and sometimes that means head-to-head combat, verbal and otherwise. Oleanna, Mamet’s latest Broadway offering, exemplifies his MO and proves yet again why he’s one of the most thought-provoking playwrights out there today.

Although it’s not a new play (it was written in the early ’90s), this production marks  Oleanna‘s Broadway debut. With a Hollywood cast comprised of Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman, the show arrives in New York after a run in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum.

Stiles and Pullman are well suited for their roles and prove their stage credibility. Oleanna is a two-character showdown of sorts, and both actors power through their respective roles. Pullman is a genius, giving off a slightly quirky everyman quality with a sympathetic yet slightly suspicious undertone. Stiles is surprisingly able in her role; her career blossomed as she played one angsty teenager after another in a barrage of cheesy teen flicks, and as a result she tends to stick in one’s mind that way, but I imagine that will change soon, as she certainly has the chops for more mature roles. Also, she’s easy to watch onstage. Unlike many screen actors who try on a Broadway play for size but can’t seem to make the necessary physical adjustments, Stiles appears comfortable and confident.

Oleanna tells the story of John (Pullman), a college professor on the verge of tenure, and his frustrated student Carol (Styles). She confronts him in his office after he gives her a bad grade on a paper. She tells him that the material he teaches is confusing and vague, and she berates him for not appreciating that his students want to succeed; she thinks his class is a hindrance. It seems as though John’s pretension and disdain for the traditional educational structure are exacerbated by the fact that he just wants job security and a good income to provide for his family. He’s not even sure if he likes teaching.

The conflict escalates when Carol accuses him of sexual harassment and his job hangs in the balance. The power struggle shifts, as do the audience’s loyalties.

The captivating moments in Oleanna occur as the conflict builds. Through their conversation (let’s be honest, it’s really more of an argument), the characters’ true colors are revealed, and what the audience once believed to be fact is unwound so the truth can be further exposed. But then, in true Mamet fashion, the plot takes another unexpected turn. The audience is engaged as they actively hear both sides and form their own opinions (and then maybe form new opinions as more information is disclosed).

Oleanna utilizes my favorite storytelling technique, what I like to call “the theatrical mind-fuck.” Although it doesn’t totally manipulate the audience, the plot develops in such a way that you never really know what to expect next. And that’s the fun of it — you intellectualize the play as the story is told.

Oleanna starts slowly but builds at a tremendous pace. The first half hour is all exposition; since the audience is merely getting acquainted with John and Carol, there’s a lot of setup before their confrontation becomes anything substantial. However, the next 60 minutes fly. Seriously, the tension is palpable. So don’t despair if you feel like you’ve been misled. Hang in there and pay attention — the payoff is yet to come.

If you like engaging theatre that sparks debates and conversation well after the curtain has fallen, you should definitely check out Oleanna. For a handful of the preview performances, postshow “talkbacks” with attorneys and other professionals were offered for the sake of discussing the ramifications of the play’s narrative if it were to really happen. The talkback I attended stimulated an amazing response from the audience; legal issues were discussed as well as plot points in general, and it seemed like everyone had something to say.

I will caution that if you prefer your live entertainment light and sunny, Oleanna isn’t your best Broadway bet. Mamet is verbose, his dialogue frequently heavy and not terribly easy to digest; it’s not challenging in an overly sophisticated way, but you do have to pay attention. But if you’re looking for a captivating night of theatre that could spark a mean debate afterward, see Oleanna.

Oleanna plays at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., between 7th and 8th avenues. Performances are Tue 7 PM, Wed-Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, and Sun 3 PM. Tickets are $76.50-$111.50. To purchase, visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200; for 40-percent-off tickets, visit broadwayoffers.com and use discount code OLMKT93. For more show info, visit oleannaonbroadway.com.