The meek and mighty do battle in 'Oleanna'

January 13, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

If you look carefully at the movie listings, you'll see the Charles has subtly transfigured itself into a David Mamet festival. That's because Mamet's film production of his play "Oleanna" has sneaked into rotation with the still potent "Vanya on 42nd Street," which Mamet adapted from the original Chekhov.

So if you like the clear, forceful language in which Mamet specializes, the Charles is the place to be. "Oleanna" is nothing if not clear and forceful, expertly (if claustrophobically) acted by William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt.

Mamet has done much to open it up by setting it in a naturalistic world with literal, rather than metaphorical, backgrounds, and by running other humans through the background, although none of them speaks. I'm not sure this is a good idea:

For some reason, he's attempting to conceal the essential artificial theatricality of a two-character play. In other respects, he has labored, not terribly successfully, to make the work seem more "natural." Though his odd use of rhythms -- which other directors tend to emphasize -- has been muted, the dialogue still feels theatrical.

But it's the theatricality that grips, not the naturalism, which soon comes to seem irrelevant to the intense struggle being waged. The film is cunningly simple in its dramaturgy, cunningly complex in its meanings.

Basically, it's an account of four conversations between a middle-aged male professor and a young female student at an elite Eastern university. They are seen through a prism of contemporary hot-button issues, notably sexual harassment, academic freedom and political correctness. In the beginning, Macy's John is affable, confident, sublimely in command. Up for tenure, in the process of buying a house (a clumsy symbol of his purchase of middle-class stability), soundly entrenched in a hierarchical system that all but deifies him, he surveys the world from what's close to a throne. Far below him is Eisenstadt's pitiful Carol, intimidated and shaken, a mousy creature almost afraid to speak her own name and utterly convinced of her inferiority.

It's not hard to figure how it ends: He's a broken man, has lost home, career, wife and life. She, by contrast, has gone from doubting little gerbil to avatar of feminism and avenger of male evils. To put it bluntly, she's eaten him for lunch and spit out the bones and gristle.

Of no writer in history can it be more accurately said: "He's all talk." "Oleanna" is all talk, a blab-fest that chronicles the subtle shift of personality and power as each gesture the professor makes is seized upon and taken out of context. It's not hard to guess where Mamet's sympathies lie in this elaborate ritual of destruction and regeneration. In that sense, the film is so defiantly anti-PC it's something of a refreshment.

Both actors are terrific, but there's a weird parallel at the performance level of the dramatic issue. In the beginning, Macy's John seizes the stage like a colossus; only gradually, over time, does the steel of Carol's spine and the fire in her ardent heart become vivid. By the end, Carol has triumphed over John and Eisenstadt has triumphed over Macy.

Hearing Hunter

To hear Sun film critic Stephen Hunter read his reviews, call Sundial at 783-1800 and punch in the four-digit code 6250. For other Sundial numbers, see the SunSource directory on Page 2A.

"Oleanna"

Starring William Macy and Debra Eisenstadt

Directed by David Mamet

Released by Goldwyn

Unrated

***

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