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'Oleanna' on Broadway: What did the critics think?

October 12, 2009 | 11:23 am

Oleanna It's hard to believe that it's taken more than 15 years for David Mamet's "Oleanna" to finally reach Broadway. At this point, you could almost call it a period play.

The two-person drama about an alleged incident of sexual harassment at a university debuted in 1992 at the height of the culture wars and shortly after the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill hearings. "Oleanna" went on to an extended off-Broadway run, where it starred William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon.

It was also made into a 1994 feature film directed by Mamet.

The production that opened last night at the John Golden Theatre stars Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles as the professor and student who are locked in a battle of language and wills. The production, directed by Doug Hughes, originally opened in June at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Times critic Charles McNulty wrote of the Taper production that "'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."

So how did the New York critics respond? Keep reading to find out...

David Rooney of Variety praised Pullman and Stiles for bringing "bristling conviction" to their roles. He described Pullman's body language as "transfixing" and wrote that Stiles' "balance of agitation and self-possession" keeps audiences guessing despite the actress' tendency toward sulkiness. But he added that the "production can't correct the imbalance of a manipulative play that only feigns impartiality."

The New York Times' Ben Brantley wrote that the production "often seemed slow to the point of stasis, and its ending found me almost drowsy." He faulted Pullman and Stiles for not being on the same stylistic page and for attempting to act in a Mamet play: "With Mr. Mamet, the words really do come first. As this production demonstrates, interpreters who try to sidestep this cardinal rule do so at their peril."

Elysa Gardner of USA Today described the production as "gripping" and wrote that "'Oleanna' has lost none of its provocative power and is bound to inspire animated conversations long after the curtain falls."

John Simon of Bloomberg wrote that the play "has lost none of its power to provoke." He praised Pullman as "an expert at good-natured masculinity turning ugly when sorely beleaguered, and Stiles consummately conveys not-so-passive aggression."

The Associated Press' Michael Kuchwara called the staging "a fine new production." He wrote that "Pullman and Stiles, under the precise, careful direction of Doug Hughes, make the most of Mamet's seemingly imprecise language." He added that "what makes the play so fascinating is to watch that authority slowly slip away and see what happens when words just won't do."

Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post wrote that "watching the play 17 years later is like watching something made during the Red Scare of the '50s. 'Oleanna' speaks volumes not only about an era dominated by the shared paranoia of conservatives and lefty activists, but also about its creator's id. And what surged from Mamet's brain is the closest Broadway now has to a slasher movie."

-- David Ng

Photo: Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in David Mamet's "Oleanna." Credit: Craig Schwartz / via Bloomberg