David Mamet has emerged as the most revered contemporary American playwright due to his ability to create a distinct language for his characters. Listen to the way the real estate salesmen talk about the “leads” in Glengarry Glenross or how Fox talks about setting up a meeting in Speed-the-Plow. The characters grasp at words as if they were life preservers, futilely attempting to keep their heads above water, eventually drowning in their desperation. To Mamet, the world is a cruel joke; some people are in on it and some aren’t, but they all try to believe they can pull themselves through, mostly by projecting a sort of intense overconfidence that is betrayed by the desolation of their breakneck, endlessly jargon-filled speech.
Oleanna is a play with just two characters. With such a small cast it should lend itself well to exploring conflict. It features a female college student and a male professor. She wants a better grade and perhaps something else, maybe power over her life. He wants tenure and a new house and also perhaps something else, maybe a captive audience to listen to his musings on education. Their sexes, interests and relative positions all establish the sort of inherent conflict that a dynamic play requires—and yet no conflict comes across in the production of Anthony Gabriele ’03.
A simple, and intellectually intriguing choice—to cast the professor as a rather earnest, pathetic wretch—simply doesn’t work. Without an aura of authority, his interactions with the student become painfully dry, drenched as they are in unnecessary pathos. The dialogue moves slowly and desperation is not hidden behind shallow words but rather writ large at all times, making the conversation almost painfully uninteresting. When the professor remarks, as if it were a surprise, that he and the student are much alike, the moment has no meaning. It is obvious that they are both rather tedious whiners. In later scenes, which are supposed to convey a shift of power and cause the audience to repeatedly reconsider its views about tacit sexual intimidation, the play appears wildly uneven because of the lack of initial conflict.
If the professor begins the evening with self-assurance, if he possesses some of the veiled neediness of a typical Mamet salesman, there is that early conflict. If he is sanctimonious and shallow, the student has justification for her antagonism. If he says they are alike only to seem more a man of the people, or better yet, because in his sermonizing he has momentarily convinced himself of that notion, then the play is interesting.
The impulse to try something new with this play is understandable. Oleanna is Mamet’s most topical play—it arose on the heels of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings—and it often seems less sharp than some of his other works. Gabriele’s interpretation has the benefit of making the female student less a victim than she seems in most productions, but it is at the expense of making her largely unsympathetic and rendering the professor with virtually no variation throughout the evening.
It should be noted that the two actors turn in fine performances. Matthew E. Johnson ’02 and Jody E. Flader ’02 are widely acknowledged as two of the finest performers of the Harvard stage, and for good reason. Though the note on which the professor is played seems out of sync with the script, Johnson is always believable and suggests more character development in the way he manipulates a telephone than most actors do in an extended monologue. Flader’s student is appropriately frustrated, and she squeezes every drop from a chilling moment in which she attempts to convince the professor to alter his curriculum.
Though the professor rejects attempts to alter his interpretation of his academic subject, there may well be ways to alter the interpretation of Oleanna and its lead roles. A successful interpretation, though, must effectively depict the shifts in power that lie at the play’s center. An idea for reimagining a play can intrigue without working dramatically. Above all else, a play must succeed in creating conflict—and that is where this production is most lacking. The characters’ relationships lack the initial tension that the rest of the play needs to thrive. And without conflict, there is no drama.
Anthony J. Gabriele ’03