A Sexual Battle Onstage . . . and Off

CLARENCE PAGE

May 05, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- It is too bad that the first time a major playwright deals with the timely topics of sexual harassment he decides to make the woman the bad guy.

That's what happens in ''Oleanna,'' David Mamet's angry, somewhat simplistic, yet terribly intriguing little two-character, three-scene drama that was performed splendidly by actors William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt in the performance I saw in Washington's Kennedy Center, where it is playing until May 23.

I suppose an easy case like Tailhook or Sen. Bob Packwood's gropings would have been too easy for Mr. Mamet, who seems to get a charge out of battles for power and submission. With the notable exception of his movie ''House of Games,'' he seems to have an easier time dealing with the mysteries of men than the mysteries of women.

Even so, ''Oleanna'' tells a compelling story that is appropriate to these shifting and sometimes confusing times on the sexual frontier. His tale of John, a college professor, who is unfairly charged by Carol, an oddball woman student he ironically was trying to help, also exposes surprising facets of the dark side of human nature, onstage and off.

By its second act, Carol, the initially perplexed student, is more sure of herself, having fallen in with a mysterious student ''group'' that has energized her vocabulary with feminist-speak and inspired her to charge Professor John with sexual harassment, having jerked his friendly statements and gestures (he had put a comforting arm around her shoulder during one of her rants) out of their context to make it sound like he was coming on to her.

Whether Carol is so sexually uptight that she truly believes she was being harassed or whether it is all just her sinister ploy to cleanse his reading list of politically incorrect titles is left up to the audience to decide. Either way, the whiff of scandal is all it takes for the faculty tenure committee to punish him by rejecting his tenure, which causes his job, dream house and married life to collapse around his ears.

It gets worse. Carol falsely charges him with rape after he, in an emotional effort to persuade her to drop the complaint and see his side, tries to stop her physically from storming out of the room. Eventually he loses control and punches the annoying jabber-mouth, sparking wild cheers and applause in the audience with which I was sitting, an outburst immediately followed by groans of shocked dismay and revulsion from others.

It turns out that this reaction was not unusual. The matinee audience, made up largely of senior citizens, had been even more bloodthirsty, a Kennedy Center spokeswoman told me. Many of its men and women alike repeatedly shouted, ''Hit her again!'' So much for Washington sophistication.

Something about the issues raised in this play obviously touches a nerve in some folks. Perhaps some find Mr. Mamet's nightmare fantasy of rising women's power run amok to be too ominous. Perhaps some see in its view that a man accused of sexual harassment can automatically lose the presumption of innocence and other due process a vindication at last of Clarence Thomas or Woody Allen or anyone else who, once charged with a heinous enough offense, must bear the taint of it forever, whether it is founded or not, in the court of public opinion.

After all, the professor's situation and Justice Thomas' are similarly ''Kafka-esque,'' the word Mr. Thomas chose to describe the way he was presumed guilty like the hapless victim in a Franz Kafka drama of the absurd, simply because many didn't like his political views.

Or maybe it's just that some people don't like an uppity woman, whether she's in the right or not.

As a promotional gimmick, a blackboard in the theater's lobby counted audience votes on two questions. Almost everyone thought the professor, not the student, was right (that was easy; Mr. Mamet stacks the deck) and that the staged situation could happen in real life.

Yes, it could. It may even be more likely these days as many men perceive mixed signals from women on the rights front. Women want to be respected the same as men, yet ''hostile workplace'' rulings ban much of the language and behavior men normally take for granted among other men. Yesterday's Playboy pinup is today's sexual-harassment suit.

At the same time, some students, usually women, don't want professors, usually men, to get too friendly -- while others argue fervently for the right of students to date their professors, even while enrolled in the professors' classes.

It's hard to stand on firm ground when the rules of engagement keep shifting. We should never be too quick to rob accused men of the benefit of the doubt in hard cases or to let the punishment become worse than the crime. But neither should a man bop a woman or cheer on another who does, whether it is in fact or in fiction. It doesn't take a degree in political correctness to know that. It only takes common sense.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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