Mamet confronts sex and power in 'Oleanna'

THEATER REVIEW

April 27, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

WASHINGTON — Near the end of the first half of David Mamet's "Oleanna," a professor tells a student: "That's my job. . . . To provoke you."

Provocation is also the job of good theater, and this 95-minute, two-person play, currently at the Kennedy Center, certainly earns an A on that score.

In the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings, Mamet -- who in the past has taken on real estate hustlers, Hollywood hucksters and small-time hoods -- has turned his attention to sexual harassment.

The result is a lean, mean and far from unbiased look not only at a hot topic, but also at such subjects as political correctness and, at the most basic level, the difficulty of communication between men and women.

The fairly simple premise concerns a professor up for tenure and a female student who comes to him complaining that she has been unable to understand what he has been trying to teach. This is theater of the minimal: two people talking on stage -- language as action.

A form of colloquial, staccato poetry, Mametese is not easy to deliver, but this production boasts one of its foremost interpreters, William H. Macy, who originated the role of the professor off-Broadway and left that production to re-create it here under the playwright's direction.

But it's not merely his mastery of the language that makes Macy's performance both insightful and provocative. The actor manipulates our allegiances, making us shift, turn and eventually squirm.

From the start, Macy's professor is a smug, paternalistic pedant. When he offers to reteach his course on a one-on-one basis to his angry, complaining student (Debra Eisenstadt), his motives are hardly pure. His ego is hurt at the thought that he might have failed in his ability to teach; he narcissistically claims to recognize himself in her; and in the most paternalistic sense, he insists he can help her.

Nothing too dangerous or controversial here. But after intermission, Mamet takes us through the looking glass, moving the power base from the controlling professor to Eisenstadt's seemingly innocent student, who has suddenly submitted a report to the tenure committee accusing the professor of sexual harassment.

The most brilliant moment comes when the accusations are spelled out -- a list of the exact words and deeds we have just witnessed, butreinterpreted in a way that cuts to the core of this play and, by extension, to any interaction between a man and a woman to which they are the sole witnesses. Perception is all, and it can be colored by everything from gender to politics to economics.

Striking as this pivotal scene is, "Oleanna" -- the title refers to a 19th-century utopian community -- is not without flaws. Most notably, there is no apparent groundwork for the student's transformation into a revolutionary feminist, and the subsequent extremes to which she goes are even less credible. These weaknesses are further accentuated by the fact that Eisenstadt is a considerably less accomplished performer than her co-star.

Mamet's imbalanced handling of the characters skews the balance of the play and also leads him to saddle the professor with some violent actions that seem out of character.

But troubling as such character points may be, they aren't half as troubling as Mamet's contentious themes -- or his eventual slant onthem. In "Oleanna," the issues are the best characters; that usually isn't effective on stage, but you've got to admire a play whose audience comes out fighting.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Oleanna."

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington.

When: Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Through May 30.

Tickets: $28.50-$45.

Call: (800) 444-1324.

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