When it first opened in 1992, David Mamet’s Oleanna kicked up a tremendous fuss. He’d tackled themes of gender, power, and political correctness, and viewers and critics were evenly split on whether he’d done so brilliantly or boorishly. The issue was hot: Susan Faludi had published Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women the year before, forcing a generation of young women out of their complacency. Michael Crichton’s novel Disclosure about a man who gets manipulated by his female boss (and the icky Michael Douglas movie that resulted) were just two years away from release. The discussion of male power and privilege, and how women could take their place in the world without becoming villains in turn, was blazing.
Into this inferno, Mamet dropped the story of a young student approaching her professor for help, and then eventually bringing him down with her allegations of abuse and impropriety. It’s a gutsy piece of work for Playhouse West, and the current production illustrates how some questions — both those raised by the text, and larger ones about the audience’s prejudices — still have not been answered satisfactorily.
Criticism that Oleanna is anti-woman is oversimplified. Mamet does address male privilege and the way a man can get lost in it. Even though we know some of Carol’s accusations are groundless because we’ve seen what they’re based on, we also see that John may be capable of much worse. Thus, much of what audience members take away is based on their own preconceptions, which is Mamet’s point. He’s playing with audience members, forcing them to confront the lens through which they view not only the work but the world. What kind of angry Oleanna will make you has everything to do with what you bring to it. Who is the victim and who the villain? Have we gone too far in trying to legislate other people’s behavior? Are we moving away from creating the just society envisioned by generations of feminists? These are meaty questions, ones that director Lois Grandi’s production lays out in a welter of steadily building tension and perfectly paced overlapping dialogue.
This is some of the strongest work I’ve seen from Robert Hamm, who portrays John. Over the three short acts he moves seamlessly from jovial and expansive to small, stuttering, and clenched with rage, without overdoing it. It’s a broader range than he showed in Ariel or Endgame; Grandi uses him well, balancing him against Lisa Morrison’s time bomb of a Carol, who has some especially nice moments near the end where she starts to realize what exactly she’s done.
That said, Oleanna itself — not this admirably taut production — could have been more effective and more subtle. Mamet could have made Carol less of a stalking horse to cover his point about political correctness. Which isn’t surprising — Mamet writes women clumsily. How can a woman who doesn’t know what the words “paradigm,” “indictment,” or “predilection” mean suddenly break out constructions like “my charges are not trivial. You see that in the haste with which they were accepted”? Scholars talk about the “gaps” or “lacunae” with which Mamet likes to challenge his audience, unexplained leaps such as the one from the inarticulate Carol of the first act to the surgically precise one of the third. Others suggest that Carol is brighter than she first appears, and is setting John up. A third possibility is that she’s not speaking her own words but parroting the mysterious “group” she starts referencing in the second act. But it’s also completely possible that Mamet just doesn’t write women who sound real. At least at Playhouse West the questions — and impact — are.