Just in case you were wondering, the title of Oleanna refers to a Norwegian folk song about a failed attempt to create a utopian society. The play itself, however, is a 75-minute, two-character firecracker about how a seemingly innocent and mundane meeting between a male university professor and his frustrated female student leads to accusations of sexual harassment, leaving his life in ruins.
Seventeen years ago, David Mamet, inspired by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and the country's new emphasis on political correctness, created this provocative two-hander that brilliantly explores the ambiguities in everyday language and the swinging pendulum of power dynamics.
Doug Hughes' excellent Broadway revival starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles thrives on speed, intensity, and psychological subtlety. Though the play is still likely to divide audience members and make many feel uncomfortable and angry, we can at least now view it with a degree of detachment.
Neil Patel's huge, decorated office set with Venetian blinds that move up and down is far too lush and lavish for the play's own good. When Mamet himself directed its premiere, the set consisted of little more than a desk and chair.
One might think that Pullman is too charismatic and likable to play John, the self-absorbed but well-meaning professor. However, his performance represents a full progression from security haughtiness to anger and weakness, and then finally utter defeat. When Pullman says "I like you" to Carol and puts his arm around her in an attempt to console her, it is both sincere and tragic.
Julia Stiles, on the other hand, is always cold, calculating and assertive. As a result, one gets the impression that Carol planned to accuse John of sexual harassment all along. Still, Stiles brings real passion to Carol's arguments against John, rather like a prosecutor making a weak case shine through careful persuasion.
To prevent audience members from reacting audibly during the play, talkback sessions are offered after every performance. More likely than not, the audience is on the side of the male professor, often referring to the female student as a "psychopath" or "total bitch." Receiving an immediate opportunity to vent following the play really does help to flesh out the experience and bring you directly into the debate.