12 October 2009

OLEANNA on Broadway

In the 10 minutes or so in which I waited outside the Golden Theater for my friend, no fewer than 5 separate groups of middle aged women noted the marquee and exclaimed “Oh look, Julia Stiiiiles is in something.”  No mention was made of Bill Pullman, who costar with a longer career, or David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize winning—and perhaps most marketable—playwright who’s OLEANNA opened last night.  No mention was made of either of these men (let alone director Dough Hughes) because, for this particular subset of the population—middle aged women walking on 45th St at 6:45pm on a Thursday night—Julia Stiles on Broadway is the event of note.  Those women would not be disappointed.  Julia Stiles was indeed in something.  On Broadway.  Hell, (spoiler alert) she even cried.  Those of us asking for more, however, might not walk away as satiated. 

OLEANNA concerns Carol, a college student (Stiles), who meets with John, her about-to-be-tenured professor (Pullman), to discuss that fact that she is failing/”doesn’t get” his class.  This seemingly innocuous encounter—full of theory about the nature/value of higher education and identity—is cast in a darker light in later scenes as She lodges a formal complaint against Him.  She claims his behavior both in that meeting and in the classroom, is condescending and sexist.  Thus begins a discourse on gender roles, power dynamics and political correctness.  Sort of.  Because the two sides of the argument are never really presented.  She attacks Him relentlessly and tirelessly, making arguments both solid and tenuous.  He, in reaction, is increasingly befuddled and disheveled, but never particularly articulate—there is not one moment after the first scene in which He makes a point that She acknowledges.  Not that she should, as his argument consists of refrains of “Why are you doing this to me?” as opposed to specifically refuting her arguments and evidence.  Of course, her arguments and evidence are so vaguely presented that I have a hard time believing a tenure board would give them lip service.   He is equally ineffective in his communications with his wife, who calls incessantly throughout to play despite Pullman’s habitual greeting of “I can’t talk right now.”  I am almost offended that a play supposedly dedicated to the exploration of interaction between genders shows women in a singular light as ceaseless harpies who, with their combination of needs and expectations, push Him over the proverbial edge.  And it is only when He is pushed that any of Her arguments begin to seem plausible.     

The trademark “Mamet” rhythm comes off as contrived and unconvincing here (especially in the first scene), and there is little variance in tempo or energy.  The design elements are appropriate, if not particularly helpful in setting a time for this production—the world is a different place in 2009 than it was in 1992 (when the play was first produced).  The fact that this production neither confirms nor denies this fact, setting the play vaguely around now-ish, underscores the feeling that the whole evening was very “general”—generally engaging, generally entertaining, generally well acted.  Though adequately and professionally executed, I can’t help but think I would see an equally, if not more, provocative production at a college or regional theater.  But it wouldn’t have Julia Stiles.  And for some people, that may be enough.

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