Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Oleanna Gives Them Something To Talk About

David Mamet's Oleanna is being given a strong production at Broadway's Golden Theatre. The polarizing play takes place in the office of a professor, John (Bill Pullman), over three different meetings with one of his students, Carol (Julia Stiles). She claims she does not understand anything in his class and he offers her extra attention, which later leads to accusations, some reasonable (misogyny, elitism), others not (attempted rape), which could cost him his tenure. Doug Hughes's staging is well-paced, starting off slow, allowing for the intense buildup required in the final scene. Pullman gives a wonderfully quiet and understated performance and Stiles gives Carol enough vulnerability to not come across solely as a bitch. In a discussion with the actors after, they mentioned that they try to have a conversation onstage, not just spout lines at each other, and this pays off. It's a satisfying and explosive evening at the theater, but the real highlight occurs after the performance, during the talkback.

On the night I attended (October 6), lawyer and consultant Judith Kaye moderated. The panelists were Wayne Outten, an expert in employment law, and Susan Sangillo Bellifemine, who works in mediation and arbitration. First, the moderator posed questions to the panel, but then the audience was given the chance to weigh in. It became a passionate discussion, with opinions running the spectrum. More people seemed to come out in favor of John, though few thought he was blameless. There were the two older women near me who staunchly defended John as a nice man only trying to help Carol. There was a teenage girl explaining why Carol could be viewed as a sympathetic character. Some interesting theories came out of the discussion, including the fact that the "group" Carol constantly refers to might be in her head, which I had never even considered. Sadly, the conversation was restricted to 20 minutes, but I'm sure it could have gone on for another couple of hours as people were still anxiously waving their hands at the end. I'm probably one of the few people who love the play itself, and it is because of the ambiguity that allows for such different interpretations. This is what theater should do--spark discussion.

For discount tickets to the show through November 15, visit and enter code OLMKT93.

If you see the show, be sure to watch other reactions online after or weigh in on Twitter, though I hardly think that 140 characters is sufficient room.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I'm in complete agreement with you on all counts, including how polarizing the show has been. Case in point: I can't believe I've seen the same show reading through some of the reviews, but yours is on the money.

Linda said...

Thanks Steve!