« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

Review: 'Oleanna' at the Mark Taper Forum

June 7, 2009 |  4:00 pm


When David Mamet’s “Oleanna” emerged in 1992, it was as if a cherry bomb had been planted under the seats of progressive theatergoers. Written in the controversial wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment saga and smack in the middle of the bitterly divisive culture wars, the play took enormous delight in adopting a defiantly politically incorrect stance to the then-hot-button issue of political correctness.
Nearly two decades later, it has become possible to respond to this polemical two-character drama with a cooler head. Not that Doug Hughes’ sleekly attractive staging of “Oleanna,” which opened Friday at the Mark Taper Forum with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles as the professor and student combatants, has lost its power to rile an audience. But the intense post-show conversation, which could be heard all across the Music Center at the end of this 80-minute prize-fight, is less bruising than it was in the polarized age that spawned the work.  

“Oleanna” has never been one of my favorite Mamet plays, but this production opened it up in a way that allowed me to finally appreciate what must have attracted Harold Pinter to direct the 1993 London premiere at the Royal Court. At the time, I chalked it up to a long friendship between the playwrights. But Hughes’ direction clarified that the real subject under investigation isn’t the surface one of identity politics but rather the way in which language serves as a subterfuge for insecure power games — a Pinteresque theme if ever there was one.

Pullman takes on the role of John, a professor anxiously waiting for the university to sign off on his tenure. He’s buying a house with his wife, who keeps phoning him with updates during his fraught meeting with Carol, a struggling student with a pressure-cooker temperament, played by Stiles.

Carol confesses that his seminar is beyond her. “I don’t understand what anything means,” she says. “And I walk around from morning ‘til night with this one thought in my head. ‘I’m stupid.’ ”

Identifying with her low self-esteem, John (who's loaded with neurotic tics by Pullman) proposes a private tutorial. “Your grade for the whole term is an ‘A,’ ” he says, offering to bend the rules under the condition that she give him the chance to “awaken” her interest and satisfactorily answer her naive questions.

Let the accusations begin, but don't expect the ambiguity to be perfectly balanced. John may be an incoherent personality, but he doesn’t act as though he has any inappropriate designs on this fetching (a word he eventually gets in trouble for using) coed.

His biggest shortcoming is his failure to be vigilant about appearances. He’s unorthodox to a self-congratulatory fault. But then he’s caught in a paradox: Although his scholarship poses a critique of higher education as a form of “hazing,” he's climbing the academic ladder with an ambitiousness that would seem to contradict all his radical intellectual positions. John is guilty of something, and his unconscious mind (like anyone's) isn't clean, but the charges hurled at him are obviously trumped up.

Stiles deftly exposes one of the sources of Carol’s vindictive anger — her lack of access to language and knowledge. Confounded by Ph.D rigmarole (she can’t tell the difference between a “precept” and a “paradigm”), she becomes a demon of ideological jargon once her “group" (an unnamed body of presumably feminist rabble-rousers) empowers her to take action against her teacher’s “paternal prerogative.”

The most annoying aspect of “Oleanna” is the way the deck is so shamelessly stacked. Our noses are rubbed not just in Carol's distorting wrath but also in everything John has to lose by her allegations — his new house, his career and the future he’s toiled for decades to attain. It's telling that during the play’s original off-Broadway run, there were reports of men erupting with misogynistic cheer when John finally succumbs to his anger.

Thankfully, that response wasn’t audibly in evidence at the Taper. Perhaps time has tempered our perceptions, but more probably the credit belongs to a production that makes this more a war over words than an inflammatory installment of the battle of the sexes.
Both actors find subtle ways of slipping out of stereotypical straitjackets. Pullman italicizes John’s fragmented attention and halting speech pattern, so that even though his sense of entitlement is formidable, there’s something inept about his presence. And if (like his author) he enjoys, as he says, provoking his listeners, Pullman’s portrayal suggests it’s because he’s so easily provoked by the impossibly contradictory world around him.

Stiles refuses to let Carol be just a bugaboo of a belligerent male imagination. She's more than a propagandizing puppet. Even with her hair pulled back and her face frozen in frustration, she hints at secret sexual depths — a young woman who’s as fearful about her vulnerability as she is her erotic possibilities.

Hughes’ staging provides a modern gloss on the action. Neil Patel‘s stunning set turns John’s office, with its backdrop of windows facing a majestic campus, into an elitist zone of academic privilege, complete with electronic blinds that move between scenes and phones that won’t stop buzzing.

Donald Holder’s lighting shifts the mood almost imperceptibly between public and private spheres. If Catherine Zuber’s costumes seem at one point too posh for the characters, the choice is in keeping with the freshening coat of glamor Hughes' production bestows.

“Oleanna” still fills me with reservations — artistic as well as political. Yes, the debate is tendentiously rigged. But you can’t argue with a play that retains the power to get theatergoers arguing with each other as they head home.

-- Charles McNulty

"Oleanna," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (Call for exceptions). Ends: July 12. $20 to $65 (213) 628-2772. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Photo: Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times.

Comments () | Archives (8)

As someone who worked on the original off-broadway production (as company manager) with William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon, I can attest that it isn't true that there were "men erupting with misogynistic cheer when John finally succumbs to his anger." I also toured with this play all over the country, and no such eruption happened in other towns.

This is Charles McNulty from the L.A. Times. Reports in the New York Times and Village Voice of men cheering on the violence at the end of “Oleanna” were widely discussed in 1992, and I witnessed similar behavior at Yale Rep in 1993.

From the New York Times: “The most dangerous aspect of the play is its ending: the professor beats the young woman, punching her, hurling her to the floor, cursing at her and lifting a chair to break over her head as she crawls under a bench and huddles in fetal position. The evening I saw the play, the audience cheered and urged him on.”


At the June 7 6:30pm performance of Oleanna at the Mark Taper Forum, a handful of audience members cheered with relief when John initially struck Carol. The entire audience seemed terrified, however, as his attack escalated.

The play was a complete waste of my time. There was absolutely no rhythm between the 2 actors. Pullman spent a lot of time talking to the walls. Styles was not suited for this role. Give me The Goat anytime.

I, too, was at the Sunday night performance and I will second the cheers that happened when carol was struck. And, i think it was a woman who cheered the loudest.

Thanks for the review. I had a vague notion that the play was about a prof and a student, but had forgotten most of the political details surrounding the porduction. I kind of like going into our plays at the Taper without much foreknowledge. I read the reviews after. For this play, not knowing the plot really heightened the drama, I'll tell you!

As for my husband and I, like the review suggested, fought on the way back to our car. But, probably not the same fight that occurred in the post-Anita Hill days! My husband thought the play was offensive to men and women. Complete rubbish, he declared. I ended up defending Mamet. I thought that we'd come a long way in the last 16 years. For me, and I'm sure many women in the audience, Carol was not the hero. She was manipulated and a manipulator.

Thanks for the review and the historical context.

Hi Charles mcnulty
I am the theater writer yr police sister interveiwed when I was mugged at knife piint ion NYC the night before the Humana Fest!

I saw the play in NYC with Bill Macy & Treat Williams
On both occasions the audience cheeered when The Prof belted the student!

Frankly, I felt this production was superior to both the previous ones I saw. I can see the Samuel Beckett influence upon Pinter which then informed this play
To me it is no pop culture time-locked (Anita Hill Response) work but a much riicher atectonic work. The characters are cliches who morphed into archetypes.
This is because MAMET plays are based on Sanford Mesiner's system of acting (which I studied) & he has authenticty at the center with meticulous contact & reaction and a keen aawreness of the rhythm & music of a finely -tuned text. Cannot imagine better interpeters than STILES & PULLMAN>

BRAVO. Your review, Mr McNulty excellenbt & perceptive as usual.
Would love to see STIILES & OULLMAN in "Summer & Smoke."

Saw the play tonight (Tuesday) Would someone plase talk about the totally lacking direction of Doug Hughes.? Did he direct this production via Skype? The completely unmotivated blocking of Stiles and Pullman made the show look amatuerish. ANd I was only 9 rows back and found Pullman unintelligible for most of the show. I too cheered when the fight broke out-not because of the story but because I knew the play was ending and my misery would soon be relieved.

Stunning, stunning performances! Saw the final performance. The acting is about as good as it gets. The dialogue as written by Mamet is as challenging as dialogue gets. I wasn't holding the script but I'm fairly certain every comma, ellipses and fragment were delivered as written, though the dialogue sounded improvised. The play itself? I could argue with myself for hours and and reach no conclusion, but about the performances I saw the evening I am certain.


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.