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Wednesday, 14 October 2009 23:21

Broadway Review: “Oleanna” Revival or New Play?

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Oleanna
Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles in
Oleanna
Photo: Craig Schwartz

David Mamet’s Oleanna is a riveting play.  Interestingly, between the passage of time from when the play first premiered (1992) and now,  and the performance given by our leading man, this play appears to be about something altogether different than Mamet originally intended. 

A college professor played by Bill Pullman meets with a young, seemingly naïve student played by Julia Stiles.  She doesn’t understand the course he is teaching.  During the first scene it is hard to make heads or tails of what the student wants or expects from the professor.    She only completes about fifty percent of the sentences she starts (as does he for that matter).  She comes off as suffering from some type of post-traumatic stress disorder.   

Pullman’s character is a manic Bob Newhart.  His tenure has just been announced (but not signed) and he is in the midst of a troubled transaction for a new home.  Throughout the play he is answering his wife’s phone calls while attempting to deal with an unbalanced young girl.  He has told her that as long as she continues to come to his office (I assumed for tutoring, silly me) she would get an A in the course.  The professor also has his own break-down in this scene expounding on his inability to accept and reconcile his success in life and spilling other personal information a professor should probably not be discussing with a student.

In the second scene we discover that the young girl has filed a grievance with the tenure committee in an effort to have his tenure not confirmed.  The third scene finds the professor not only without tenure but most likely without a job.  In both of these scenes the young female student keeps returning to the professor’s office (against the advice of her counsel).  The tenure board has found him guilty of the accusations.  By the end of the play the girl out-and-out claims she was raped.

Oleanna
Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in
Oleanna
Photo: Craig Schwartz

When this play premiered off-Broadway in 1992 it was in the shadow of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy.  Clarence Thomas, an appointee for the Supreme Court by the first President Bush was accused by Hill in his confirmation hearings of having had sexually charged conversations with her.  In the early nineties the pendulum of political correctness had swung full-tilt on the side of caution. 

After performances of the original production, Oleanna  was known to start arguments in the lobby with people taking various sides.  After tonight’s performance there was a talk-back with an attorney who specializes in sexual harassment in the workplace and a psychologist.  About 100-150 audience members stayed for the talk.  There were none of those same arguments or confrontation.  It wasn’t even particularly passionate.  There seemed to be a consensus that the girl was nuts and the professor damn near.  Sure, he said things that could have been misconstrued.  Perhaps he crossed a barely visible technical line.  But there was nothing in Mr. Pullman’s performance that would have led to the conclusion that his intentions were anything but pure.  This young girl either had an ax to grind or was suffering with some type of mental disorder that inhibited her ability to think rationally.  That was obvious about half-way through the first scene. 

Oleanna is directed by the talented Doug Hughes (Doubt).  He is also represented on Broadway this fall with The Royal Family for Manhattan Theatre Club.  The two plays couldn’t be further apart in tone, style or time period. 

Was there a conscious decision on the part of Mr. Hughes to have Pullman maintain this barely pulled together professor as opposed to a more menacing and dominant figure?  If so, by changing the focus has he created an entirely new play? 

To cover costume changes between scenes Mr. Hughes chose to have electronic blinds in the massive office windows go up and back down, signifying the passage of time or perhaps even seasons.  This was accompanied by the loud disconcerting hum of the blind’s motors.  These elements combined to create an intimidating environment that was magnified by the closed blinds.  The blinds gave the room a feeling of being closed off, dark and smaller than its actual size.  The choice of these elements leads me to believe that it was not Mr. Hughes decision that the play should be about something other than sexual harassment and rape.  If that is indeed true, Mr. Pullman was let down by his director.  Depending upon the weight you put on those elements, the play may no longer work as directed by Mr. Hughes. 

Because I enjoyed the performances so much I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to a bad design call.  Unfortunately, if his intention was that the play was about something else, then the ending is very unsatisfying.

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Read the production credits at the Broadway Internet Database

Review Roundup:

David Rooney for Variety – ” the play remains provocative, even if it's unlikely to spark the same impassioned debates it did 17 years ago. The big difference is it now seems more about the misinterpretation of words and intent than the then-hot-button issue of sexual harassment.”

Ben Brantley  for The New York Times – “the latest version, which pits the excellent Bill Pullman against the luminous Julia Stiles, often seemed slow to the point of stasis, and its ending found me almost drowsy.”

Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News – “Sitcoms are built for laughs. Oleanna is made to enrage — it's a sitbomb."

Michael Kuchwara for The Associated Press – “The play caused quite a stir when it was staged off-Broadway in 1992. And there's no reason to expect that this fine new production won't generate a similar response, even among people who saw it some 17 years ago.”

Last modified on Thursday, 10 December 2009 21:36