by David Mamet
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles
Golden Theatre / 45th Street West of Broadway

Reviewed by David Spencer

I find it amazing that people still view David Mamet’s Oleanna as a play about “political correctness” as regards the dynamic between men and women, because it’s clearly not that at all. It’s the dramatization of what happens when a naïve personality, in this case the ostensibly sophisticated college professor John (Bill Pullman), collides with the complexities and perversity of a delusional pathology, here personified by the ostensibly unsophisticated student, Carol (Julia Stiles).

                        But maybe it’s not so amazing. For though the pathology (which manifest in men as well as women) is classic, and all too common—in families, in work environments and elsewhere—it flourishes because it’s usually only branded as insensitive or prone to misunderstanding or irrational, as if to place it in a context of behavior that should be adjustable according to the rules of civilized interplay and good manners, rather than understood as compulsive mental illness. And in that branding comes its ability to be enabled or protected or tolerated—or sometimes just painfully withstood.

                        But Carol is practically a case history. She begins with insecurity. She progresses to reinterpretation and recontextualization of everything John says to her. She escalates into full-out retribution for imagined slights. Mamet hits all the classic steps and most of the classic nuances as well.

                        Where Mamet stacks the desk toward controversy is in positing a situation in which the imbalanced person never “outs” herself to others; and in which the victim remains defenseless and hopelessly naïve in continuing to try and engage her in rational discourse and debate, which can do nothing but give the crazy person more fuel and exacerbate his own desperation. But I wonder if that’s not some kind of poetic license; if what Mamet’s really after isn’t the visceral representation of what it feels like to be steamrollered by a “scorched earth” personality. And dollars to doughnuts he wrote Oleanna as a response to dealing with one. Or several. And I think time has taken the edge off the play’s controversy. I don’t think it’s possible anymore to view Carol as the misunderstood victim of unenlightened and unwitting male sexism (though there’s some who will persist in viewing her as the creation of Mamet’s inherent misogyny). Though to be honest, I thought it was pretty much a case history 17 years ago too.

                        As to the new production of the play at the Golden Theatre—strangely, less to say about that. Bill Pullman’s John is fine, but a little too milquetoast to be a worthy combatant; Julia Stiles’ Carol is chillingly accurate; and Doug Hughes’ direction is cleanly efficient.

                        Beyond that, its entertainment value is up for grabs, and may depend upon whether it strikes a resonant chord, offends your sensibilities or agitates for the anxiety attack of rueful recognition…

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