Theatre Review: David Mamet’s Prescient, Brutal “Oleanna”

Before there were trigger warnings and safe spaces and all the other Twitter-trending muzzles introduced to American college campuses, there was “Oleanna.” Examining the build-up and fallout of a P.C. college student’s damning allegations against a professor, David Mamet’s prescient 1992 drama diagnosed a problem that, in the pop-cultural sphere, nary existed. It was revelatory then and even more persuasive now, as teachers with opinions or approaches that deviate from the current generation’s herd wisdom are routinely blacklisted. Twenty-five years on, as evidenced by Evening Star’s perceptive new production, the play’s faults are the same but it cuts deeper.

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John (Todd Bruno) is a soon-to-be-tenured professor at a college in Anywhere, U.S.A. He has agreed to take a meeting in his office with a student, Carol (Sara Elizabeth Grant), who has been struggling with his course material, and whose latest report could cost her a passing grade.

In their initial meeting, John’s attention is compromised. He’s in the process of closing a deal on a new house—his reward for the forthcoming tenure—and piercing telephone calls regarding the sale interrupt the dialogue at key junctures (Director Rosalie Grant also handled the shrill brrriiing! of the early-‘90s landline, and it’s right on point.)

If you’ve seen a previous production of “Oleanna”—or, perhaps, even if you haven’t—you’ll see exactly where John, in his handling of Carol’s objections, seals his fate. Bruno portrays him as genuine about helping his student succeed, without a hint of untoward innuendo, but the character’s phraseology is regrettable. “I like you,” he says, multiple times, when asked why he’s willing to provide her with extra attention and one-on-one meetings outside of class. He shares an off-color joke about sex to prove a point. His phone conversations with his wife and realtor plant a minefield of potentially misconstrued diction—“I’m with a student,” “As soon as I get off…”

It’s during these lines that Sara Grant begins to infuse Carol with wiles and cunning, suggesting that she may be more than a confused, self-lacerating damsel in need of further instruction from the Great Man behind the desk. Sly smiles creep along her face as she jots down perceived insinuations and slights in a notebook—each of them ammunition in a battle John doesn’t know is being waged.

If John is guilty of anything, it’s diarrhea of the mouth. He speaks in patronizing pretzels, and you could argue that “Oleanna” constitutes Mamet’s attack on both of these archetypes—Carol for her cruel manipulations, and John for his gaseous condescension. He’s Charlie Rose in the famous Sarah Palin interview; she’s a femme fatale spinning a web and waiting for her victim to fall in.

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If “Oleanna” occasionally grates, it’s on the playwright. This Mametspeak, arch and jazzlike, is some of the least naturalistic in his canon. Occasionally, his characters take on the verbal sputtering of broken lawnmowers, and you might want to scream, “just finish a damn sentence already!”

But both actors do yeoman’s work on his thorniest phrasings, and they connect deeply with Mamet’s more cogent, direct passages in the second and third acts. Rosalie Grant subtly guides them through a 180-degree reversal of roles from the play’s opening to its brutally effective climax. Just as Sara Grant evolves from doe-eyed ingénue to something approaching a P.C. dominatrix—“Venus in Fur,” another two-hander about power and sexual politics, owes something of a debt to “Oleanna”—Bruno conveys a deft transformation from a comfortable authority figure to a cowed puppy. If you’re on his side, which is where I would imagine most audience members and Mamet himself firmly stands, it’s effectively infuriating to watch.

Ardean Landhuis’s office setting, which includes lightless window panels and a couple of shelves of academic books, is just functional enough, though it lacks both the character-defining details and architectural luxuries that a professor of 20-plus-years would have accumulated. Myria Jean Baum’s costume design is well chosen to reflect the characters’ personalities and power dynamic in each scene, from Bruno’s Mr. Rogers sweater in the first act to Grant’s colorful, liberated attire in the final act.

As an outspoken post-9-11 conservative, Mamet’s personal politics have become odious to many theatergoers, which may explain why he’s been produced less often in recent years. But this durable attack on P.C. policing cuts across ideological lines, appealing to both the Bill Mahers and the Tucker Carlsons—a salve of mutual outrage in an otherwise divided country.

“Oleanna” runs through Oct. 8 at Evening Star Productions at Sol Theatre, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $30. Call 561/447-8829 or visit eveningstarproductions.org.