Monday, October 12, 2009

Oleanna

GRADE: B-



Written by David Mamet. Directed by Doug Hughes. At the Golden Theater.

Oleanna, David Mamet's cryptically titled two-hander about class, gender and academic politics, is back and on Broadway, and while the reviews run the gamut from F+ to A, the "Ayes" currently have it. Reviewers can't help compare Doug Hughes' take with the original Off-Broadway production, directed by David Mamet and starring his wife Rebecca Pidgeon and William H. Macy. While the Times' Ben Brantley finds Hughes' more psychological take on Mamet's material deadly, others feel that the slow-burn approach creates a riveting ratcheting up in tension. The most interesting take on the show belongs to Elisabeth Vincentelli from the Post, who both recognizes the play is a completely absurd monster sprung Athena-like from the brow of Mamet's id, and also claims that it's delicious fun in the same vein as a slasher film. Matthew Murray from TalkinBroadway takes the opposite tack, he loves the play's incendiary nature but finds the fires of conflict fizzled in the actors' subtext-heavy performances. (NOTE: We did not include CurtainUp's review as it is entirely descriptive in nature, but you can read it here.)



USA Today A
(Elysa Gardner) Mamet, after all, seems less interested in condemning women or men than exploring the complicated dynamics between them, made no simpler by such modern inventions as academic equality and political correctness. Stiles' Carol, joyless and riveting, describes feelings of intellectual inferiority and refers repeatedly to a "group" informing her accusations of John. It's easy to see how this young woman could find empowerment — a favorite term of her set, no doubt — in standing up to a middle-aged man charged with determining her progress. It's just as obvious why Pullman's conflicted John is thrown by Carol, whose initial desperation likely flatters him. Watching John struggle to maintain his composure as that desperation gives way to something harder and less rational, you'll swear you can see the actor's blood pressure rising. You may feel your own going up, as well. Oleanna has lost none of its provocative power and is bound to inspire animated conversations long after the curtain falls.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) Hughes wisely paces the play slowly at first, and those unfamiliar with it may be bored. But they should stick with it, because Hughes and his actors incrementally increase the tension till it explodes. It's hard to believe the same director staged the rollicking comedy "The Royal Family," which opened just a few days earlier.... the most intense show on Broadway.

ShowShowDown A
(Patrick Lee) I found this production, directed with psychological credibility by Doug Hughes and starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, to be more visceral and provocative than the original years ago (directed by the playwright) in which William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon seemed to be playing ideas rather than characters. Despite its advertising, the play is not really a "he said she said" Rashomon which divides the audience's sympathies between the two characters - it's too stacked against the female for that. But when you believe the characters, as you do here, it riles the audience and provokes a variety of interpretations.

ThatSoundsCool A
(Aaron Riccio) Oleanna itself is as incendiary as ever, from the first scene, in which John attempts--in his unfortunately misguided self-appointed role as "paternal" teacher--to help a failing student, Carol, to the third and final scene, in which Carol--having stripped John of his chances at tenure--now presents John with her demands, and gets to teach him a lesson. For the record, I still side with John. Though Pullman manages to show the character's preening obliviousness, he still comes across as well-intentioned. Stiles, to her credit, shows a lot more emotion and vulnerability in this role than I thought either were capable of, but Carol still winds up coming across as a remorseless goad at the end. Still, it's a closer fight, and that makes it a far more engaging one to watch.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) Oleanna is a fiendishly difficult play to pull off, but Pullman and Stiles, under the precise, careful direction of Doug Hughes, make the most of Mamet's seemingly imprecise language. The dialogue is full of starts, stops and backtracks that, bit by bit, build to an explosive climax. Pullman's open demeanor, a countenance that morphs into desperation, is just right for this professor, whose world — academic, financial and personal — is unraveling around him. And Stiles' icy demeanor is tinged with a hint of sexual awareness, a clarity of purpose despite the woman's claims that she is lost in the professor's class.

Wall St. Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) in the first scene it feels as though the play is catching up with his twitchy, hyperactive performance as a college professor charged with sexual harassment. Once Mr. Pullman and the script get into sync, though, "Oleanna" flies to the finish line, and Julia Stiles is terrific throughout as the scared young student-accuser who morphs into a Stalinoid robot. The rest of what I said in my earlier review still goes: "Oleanna" is a brutal parable of totalitarianism in action that continues to pack a roundhouse punch 17 years after it first opened Off Broadway.

Theaterscene A-
(Simon Saltzman) Oleanna now presented in one act seems both better and worse. Pullman, whose gave laudable stage performances in Edward Albee’s The Goat and Peter and Jerry, brings a distraught, unnerving dimension to the role. His emotional unraveling seems an almost natural extension of the insecure personality that we see at the beginning of the play. While Macy’s disintegration of his more controlled exterior was effectively more stunning, Pullman draws plenty of unnerving subtext out of the professor. Stiles, who is making her Broadway debut, is extraordinarily effective and possibly more shockingly contemptible than was the cooler and more calculating Pidgeon. It may seem like a different play to those who saw the original Off Broadway production in 1992.

Lighting and Sound America B+
(David Barbour) Doug Hughes' revival is, to my mind, vastly superior to the Off Broadway original, in which Rebecca Pidgeon's whiny, passive-aggressive Carol proved no match for William H. Macy's John. Here, Julia Stiles' go-for-the-jugular hostility makes her a more-than-worthy opponent for Bill Pullman, who visibly degenerates under the pressure of constantly having to defend himself.

NYPost B
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) 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...The play certainly has its problems -- the incessant calls are increasingly contrived, for instance. But at its best, Oleanna shows what happens when parallel lines are on a collision course.

Bloomberg B
(John Simon) The entire play is a clever enough piece of equivocation, allowing viewers to approve or reprehend either character according to their notions of feminism and sexism. The writing clearly and deliberately aims at provocation, at which it succeeds rather better than at credibility. The revival does profit here from good performances and apt direction.

VIllage Voice B
(Michael Feingold) Mamet adds an extra hurdle by making it clear that neither character is particularly good with language, though only language can bridge the gap between them: Their inability to articulate is the source of Oleanna's tragedy. This poses a production challenge that Hughes and his actors face gamely and often effectively. He orchestrates the dialogue's weird, crisscrossing blips with exactitude; the physical staging makes clear, as the original Off-Broadway production didn't always, that what occurs in the first scene partly justifies some of the startling allegations of the later ones. The tension, heightened by a maddening sound of metal window shades descending between scenes, is palpable. What's missing, oddly, is the sexual dynamic that underlies the whole story, the element that makes both parties keep coming back to this interview neither wants. You need to sense mutual desire to comprehend both the issues raised in Oleanna and their distressing result.

TheaterMania B
(Dan Bacalzo) Although the majority of audience members will undoubtedly focus on the gender aspects of this "He Said/She Said" debate, what also comes to the fore in this production are the class dimensions. Carol's most convincing argument is the one in which she critiques the elitism that John has shown by his talk of such things as purchasing a new house and sending his son to a private school. The emotional connection that Stiles establishes as Carol talks about what she's had to overcome just to get to the university is genuinely moving.

Variety C+
(David Rooney) Miscommunication more than gender politics is the central issue in this incendiary 1992 two-hander, and that gulf is exposed with bristling conviction by Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles. But Doug Hughes' meticulously calibrated production can't correct the imbalance of a manipulative play that only feigns impartiality...The dynamic is certainly unsettling, and its investigation of the susceptibility of language and behavior to perceptions that can distort truth and shift power is compelling. But while Pullman makes John's undoing a harrowing spectacle, the sheer acrimony of Mamet's stance against Carol blunts the confrontation.

Time Out New York C-
(David Cote) As in the also misconceived revival of American Buffalo last season, Oleanna has a cast that cannot achieve the balance between vocal crispness and behavioral semi-opacity that good Mamet acting requires. The text is still compelling at times, but you miss its full impact. Bill Pullman’s hypocritical, complacent college prof John yanks at his hair, squirms, and slurs his syllables. Julia Stiles’s voice has a tinny, rehearsed timbre and her flat, petulant affect stints Carol’s progression from insecure, self-lacerating undergrad to feminist avenging angel.

NYTimes C-
(Ben Brantley) Even when things get physical between John and Carol, Mr. Pullman and Ms. Stiles never seem to connect, or even to inhabit the same universe. Each has found a personal and unorthodox way of dealing with Mr. Mamet’s fierce, fragmented language. Ms. Stiles speaks with a stiff, ladylike crispness, while Mr. Pullman gives what may be the most naturalistic line readings I’ve ever heard in a Mamet play. Neither approach is entirely appropriate to Mamet-speak, though it would help if both performances were on the same stylistic page...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.

NY Daily News D+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) David Mamet at his most manipulative. Written 17 years ago in response to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill he-said-she-said circus, the compact drama is back to push buttons. Sitcoms are built for laughs. Oleanna is made to enrage — it's a sitbomb...Stiles and Pullman give fine performances. She's got a blank face and permanent frown perfect for a Mamet female — the nonentity with more to her. Pullman emits a fitting bookishness of a middle-aged Everyman. The actors get somewhat upstaged by director Doug Hughes' uncharacteristically misjudged production

The New Yorker D
(Unsigned) As directed by Doug Hughes, the complete lack of sexual tension between Pullman and Stiles renders Carol’s accusations hysterical and unfounded, and reduces what could have been a nuanced, credible power struggle to an unfair fight between an inexplicably vindictive she-monster and a pitiful man.

TalkinBroadway D-
(Matthew Murray) Who’s the victim? Who’s the aggressor? Who cares? All three questions, in roughly equal proportions, flood Doug Hughes’s new revival of Oleanna at the John Golden, making this Broadway bow of David Mamet’s most controversial and viscerally exciting play into a pedestrian mess. Until the play’s final minute, which somehow remains a nuclear explosion, you’d never know from watching Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles plow through the script that this is one of the most radioactive male-female confrontations ever committed to the stage...This play needs nothing more than its actors to speak quickly, precisely, and forcefully so its story will tell itself, and it has not gotten that here. Laden with shrill pauses, dialogue that should overlap but doesn’t, and an overall murky malaise, it feels more about the struggle of a father and his estranged daughter arguing about where to have dinner than about dissecting male hegemony and female repression in the era of political correctness.

Newsday F+
(Linda Winer) Is there a more bogus female character in modern theater than Carol, the college student in David Mamet's "Oleanna?" Has there ever been less a credible drama disguised as social and literary dynamite than the one that Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles are trying so hard to make real now on Broadway?...since Pullman and Stiles are more nuanced and compelling than the heavily stylized William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon in the original, Doug Hughes' production has turned a pseudo-serious play into a more serious betrayal. We are seduced more completely into believing there might be a character behind Stiles' [Carol]... by the time she reports him to the tenure committee for elitism and sexism and worse, we don't know if she's a psycho, a monster or a dupe of the politically incorrect brigade. She could be all of the above, but she certainly isn't a credible half of an even fight.

SSD A 13; TSC A 13l USA A 13;BS A 13; AP A 13; WSJ A- 12; TS A- 12; LSA B+ 11; VV B 10; NYP B 10; BB B 10; TM B 10; V C+ 8; TONY C- 7; NYT C- 6; NYDN D+ 5; TNY D 4; TB D- 3; F+ 2; TOTAL: 161 / 18 = 8.94 (B-)

1 comment:

gweno said...

Well, interesting how the male critics want to think this play ISN'T about gender-- the women don't. Would they say the same if this were a play with a fake black male character by a white man? This array really demonstrates why we NEED to hear from more women critics.

Not saying that other issues aren't in the play as well, of course, but a suggestion that feminism is in the eyes of the beholder strikes me as hysterically funny, or sad.