As college students, we’ve all been here before — sitting in class for a semester and listening (or in many cases, simply watching) a smug professor lecture incessantly. You’re hearing words, taking notes and doing the reading, like every student should.
But here’s the catch — he or she then promptly tells you that everything you and your classmates have done is just deliberate torture. A hazing of sorts — a “fashionable necessity.”
Add in a failing grade and the acute affliction of not being able to understand a professor’s concepts and that is the starting point of director Doug Hughes’ latest theatrical production, “Oleanna.”
Written by esteemed playwright David Mamet, “Oleanna” is the tense story between professor John (Bill Pullman) and student Carol (Julia Stiles).
One cannot help but reason that these two actors known almost immediately for their forays into cult comedy films (“Spaceballs” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” respectively) have embarked on this project to claim spots in the realm of serious theater.
The two actor’s performances are just as divergent as the ideologies of the two sole characters in the play. The clashing personalities represent two degrees of entitlement; a professor that feels he deserves tenure because of his hard work and irreverent thought in order for him to provide for his wife and son; and a student who contends that she deserves a thorough education because she has overcome prejudice to earn the right to learn.
Of course, any student would immediately plunge into feelings of anger at the said professor, one who receives the splendors of his or her ritualized and socialized need to get a degree and pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to only hear their beliefs belittled and mocked. Stiles’ treatment of the character, which should be relatable to the college student, instead alienates.
Carol, through Mamet’s writing, vaguely references a “group” that supports her reports at her professor’s sexual harassment and inappropriate teaching style that eventually prevents him from losing his recommendation for tenure.
Stiles brings a glowering sense of infuriating neediness to Carol that makes the character a villain rather than a relatable representation of a generation of young women torn between what is expected of them from and what they truly want to do with their lives.
Stiles stutters through overcalculated and overrehearsed lines. This is possibly a fault in Mamet’s writing, which is known for its awkward wording and unbelievable dialogue, however, it is hard to believe that Carol’s hardened shell of a college student could ever be a real person. Her slouching shoulders and stilted pacing just does not demand any sort of empathy or believability.
Though the script’s lack of contractions and dense semantics take some of the blame, Stiles’ Carol falls short of a living, breathing human being, which completely invalidates some of the power she is supposed to yield over Pullman’s sniveling John.
Pullman’s stilted, posturing awkwardness, however, is a portrait of the quintessential egotistical professor who uses personal stories to validate his sense of self. He is flustered and exasperated, gesticulating as if he is motioning to distract from his blundering nature.
He is subject to the calls of his students, of tenure committees and the constant calls he receives from his wife and his realtor. John’s dream of home ownership vaporizes as soon as Carol files a complaint of sexual harassment, and, because he feels he is cornered, he physically acts out against Carol.
The play, which has no intermission in its 75 minutes, is a series of interruptions — some of which are violent — between two vastly disparate characters in an academic and societal context. Their stories of the same series of events and interactions starkly differ, and it is up to the audience to choose which side with which it wants to identify.
Other issues are here too, such as the false weight of academia, the pressures of consumerism and class and the lack of constructive communication between two people. Its flaw in this construct, however, is the emphasis put on the genders of the characters. Rather than making a statement on the difference between two clearly different people, there is an uncomfortably simplified blame on their genders.
This may not be Mamet’s intent, but Hughes’ directing and the performances of Pullman and Stiles make it so — and it isn’t just because Carol accuses John of rape.
“Oleanna” may arise from conflict, but in this case the conflict overwhelms so much that the plot’s message falls apart and becomes almost indecipherable among the interruptions of dialogue and the numerous heavy, blaring rings of a cell phone.
The very nature of “Oleanna” is to question ideals, much like John’s stated intent when he teaches. Instead, it is a carefully rehearsed set of disagreements, yelling and meticulously placed references to societal wrongs that may provoke members of the audience to question the structure of the ideals put on higher education as well as the terms of relationships between people — needless to say, the whole production overwhelms.
The cryptic, one-word title has no direct tie to any of the words in the script or the unnamed setting of the play; the work’s three meetings between the two protagonists are punctuated by the loud, bizarre opening and closing of metal blinds and John and Carol’s unfinished sentences just feel too edgy and too placed to make “Oleanna” a human story. Though the play’s title takes itself from a folk song’s name for utopia, it’s not a clear enough reference to completely make sense.
Instead, “Oleanna” reads as a foray into two versions of privilege — a pretentious, blurry portrait of societal roles littered with abruptness, whose pair of strangely placed stars are forced into the unfair burden of criticizing a society using material that is too deliberate and tries far too hard.