Anyone who's spent time in class listening while a self-important academic spins webs of obfuscatory words around a relatively straightforward idea, who has felt almost annihilated by the sheer number of those words, will sympathize with Carol, the perplexed and ultimately vengeful student in David Mamet's Oleanna. If, on the other hand, you're a teacher who's spent hours of precious time plowing through the morass of illiteracy and incomprehension represented by many student papers, you'll be heart and soul with John, the professor whose life and career Carol sets out to destroy.
But Oleanna is about more than language, learning and the mysteries at the heart of education. It's also about power: the ever-shifting power between teacher and pupil, woman and man. Written about a year after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill imbroglio, the play is a furious, misogynistic response to feminism. Women tend to see this pretty clearly. Many men don't, and they deride any charge of misogyny as self-interested and reductive. It can certainly be said that the two characters are equally loathsome and that, by the end, both reveal the depths of their own depravity. In this Avenue Theater production, Elgin Kelley gives Carol a quivering, slightly off-kilter performance that hints early at madness to come. Dan O'Neill's John is a smug brute; he's capable of moments of empathy, but these are so fleeting and obtuse as to be meaningless.
The first act seems more nuanced than the play will turn out to be. Carol is in John's office because she doesn't understand either his lectures or his writing (the class is reading a book he's written). John is distracted, exulting in the recommendation he's just received for tenure, negotiating the purchase of a new house on the phone. He and Carol toss staccato, Mamet-style half-sentences past each other. Neither listens, and every time one of them seems about to pay attention, the ringing phone interrupts their dialogue. But Carol's insecurities do speak to John, inspiring a monologue on the lack of confidence that plagued him when he was a student. He softens toward her a little, and in doing so, makes a couple of idiotic mistakes: He offers to try and help her, to toss out her grade and give her an A if she comes to his office regularly and works with him. With each concession, she becomes more defensive. By the end of this act, the audience is as baffled and tense as the antagonists.
In the second act, we learn that Carol, with the help of a cult-like entity she calls her "group," has come to the conclusion that she's been sexually harassed by John and has begun her campaign to destroy him. The more frantic he grows, the more vicious she becomes, and the more overblown her account of what originally happened between them — it's no surprise when the word "rape" gets thrown into the mix — until finally the young woman who'd at first seemed so thick and inarticulate is pointing her finger and orating like a windbag politician.
Though Oleanna is dated, there are still valid arguments to be made about identity politics — as both Hillary Clinton and the media insist on proving almost daily, she by ascribing every setback to her campaign to malice from "the boys," the press with endless comments about her annoying laugh and flabby arms. (The racist cracks about Barack Obama are more oblique — overt racism being a bigger taboo in our society than overt sexism — but just as prevalent. Unlike Clarence Thomas, however, who termed the hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court "a high-tech lynching," Obama has so far avoided the politics of victimhood.)
But Mamet's play, careening toward its violent ending, doesn't provide real insight into either this phenomenon or the ugliness that often lurks behind academia's lofty ideals. What it does provide is entertainment — intellectual entertainment because the writing is so sharp and swift (though it constantly suggests depths it never quite plumbs), and the cheaper, more visceral entertainment we get from watching the contestants in reality shows try to destroy each other. Before the evening's over, the woman-hating is front and center, and all ambiguity is gone.
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