Saturday, May 03, 2008

opening-night review of *Oleanna*

at Interplayers through May 18

David Mamet’s recent pronouncement that he is “no longer a brain-dead liberal” clarifies the imbalance in his 16-year-old play *Oleanna.* Back in 1992, the patriarchal professor seemed more condescending, his cowering student more justified in her accusations of sexual harassment. But now it’s clear where the play’s sympathies lie: It portrays the professor as well-intentioned victim, the student as vengeful harpy of thought-control.
Unlike the genuine moral quandary that a good production of John Patrick Shanley’s *Doubt* engenders (did he really do it? is she actually wrong?), Mamet’s *Oleanna* tilts its sympathies one way. If Carol comes to resent the patriarchal system of teacher-experts so much that she convinces herself it’s best to participate in the dismantling of John the professor’s life, then she is a monster of political correctness run amok. Mamet, by showing his hand, lost the opportunity to explore further the ways in which higher education fails to foster critical thinking — fails even in the straightforward task of teaching students what they don’t already know.
In the play’s second half, of course — and in unexpected ways — the teacher/student power positions are reversed. And Interplayers’ production (through May 18) is solid enough to convey the startling power of Mamet’s script. The second-act raising of the stakes, role reversals and outbreaks of rage all come as surprises. And now, years after the culture wars of the ‘90s (but still embroiled in them), it’s easier to see how grades and tenure — and getting at the truth of what education does to teachers and students, regardless of the outward trappings of achievement – might be what matters most to the almost-but-not-quite-Utopia of higher education in America.
Toward the end of the short first act — and it’s a short but thought-provoking evening, less than 90 minutes long, including the intermission — John Henry Whitaker comforts his student in a way that illustrates both the strength and weakness of his performance. Sitting on the love seat in his faculty office where he has just gotten uncomfortably close to Carol and her insecurity, Whitaker extends his arms toward her while remaining seated across the room from her. He can express compassion, all right, but he’s not really going to commit to the idea.
There’s a glimmer of payoff — as the p.c. charges mount up against him, Whitaker’s slow burn of resentment becomes seething and unsettling — but he keeps his affect too noncommital, and mostly at the same level throughout. Whitaker doesn’t really let go with John’s sarcasm about his tenure committee; there isn’t enough contempt evident. At the same time, Whitaker succeeds in conveying John’s teaching instincts: He wants his student to question her assumptions, fine, but does so in a supercilious way. He wants to teach, and doesn’t know how to talk to her; she wants to learn but lacks the necessary self-confidence. They’re both trapped, though Gunnarson has the intensity that Whitaker lacks, imbalancing the play in ways that make it seem as if the student’s playing for big stakes while the professor’s remaining too smug. Even when his character stands to lose much, Whitaker’s “Don’t you have feelings?” came off less as a *cri de coeur* than as a bored observation.

Karen Kalensky directs with energy, keeping the tempo quick and the speech interruptions staccato. She has Carol sidle up to the professor’s chair, without hitting too hard at the symbolism of a power-grab. Both actors interrupt one another and engage in a lot of sidelong, tentative glances, emphasizing the prickly terms of their debate.
Gunnarson makes her character’s transitions believable, from hyper-self-critical mouse to hypercritical mouthpiece of radical feminism. In the first act, her big eyes, long face, crumpled body language and evident sense of exasperation combine to depict a student with such low-self regard that she can’t imagine herself learning anything. Desperate for self-improvement, she turns to the first accessible teaching source she finds — not her professor, but the unspecified “Group” that indoctrinates her into leveling serious charges against John. In the early going, with her fists balled up in frustration and self-contempt, she calls herself “bad” and “stupid” — and it’s pitiable until you see her steely-eyed determination later to throw those same insults at her would-be teacher. “How do you get out of the need to fail?” she asks, poignantly, in one of the evening’s several riveting moments. Mamet may have written Carol as a villainess. but Gunnarson does a great deal to weld together the mousy/radical halves of her character.
Janna Creswell’s costumes help trace the debate’s reversals: from tweedy to dapper to disheveled for the prof, and from sloppy-casual to mannish-severe for the student. Maynard Villers has choreographed a final confrontation that packs a wallop.


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