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David Mamet's Oleanna is about many things, but above all else, it's about interpretation. Language, at least in this play, always has more than one meaning. Nothing like a "pure statement" ever exists. Oleanna is a linguistic battleground, a three-act power struggle between two characters whose points of view, sensitivities to nuance and emphases of thought are constantly at war.
That's a lot to pack into a brisk hour and a half, and Mamet himself cannot quite pull it off. Oleanna plays a little too fast and loose with its characters to be quite as compelling as one would like. The production of Oleanna mounted last weekend at the Loeb Ex, however, further compromised an already flawed script. In adapting a play about the complexities of meaning, director Leah Altman '99 and her cast took a fatally broad, superficial approach to their tricky material.
John (Michael Davidson '00) is a professor, the kind who revels in assigning his own books. He takes for granted that all his words are both clear and correct. Unfortunately, they are neither of these things to Carol (Jessica Kaye '00), a student who has come to John's office to save herself from failing.
The meeting, to be sure, is less than successful. Carol has come for purely selfish reasons: "I want to know about my grade. Is that bad?" John continues speaking for a different selfish reason: to hear himself talk. But is that all he really wants? His off-color language and an attempted pat on the shoulder have convinced Carol by Act Two that she was the victim of sexual manipulation. John, to her mind, has demanded her submission to his specious, inflated academic authority.
Acting on that epiphany, she decides to report this "sexual misconduct" to a review board--severely damaging John's chances at tenure. He, of course, is dumbfounded, oblivious to any wrong-doing on his part. In the final act, the situation has reached its crisis: her feminist rage clashes against his defensive indignation until they both collapse.
The boldest power plays in Oleanna are those that the script plays against its own characters. In the first act, Carol's whiny narrowness is hopelessly outmatched by John's self-assurance. Davidson deftly expressed John's arrogance, reading the line "I love you, too," spoken to his wife over the phone, not as a response to her own affection but as a pompous self-affirmation. "I love myself first," he implicitly states, "and I also love you." Kaye, for her part, squeezed a few unlikely laughs out of Carol's anxious despair in the face of confounding verbiage like "the virtual warehousing of the young."
Act Two turns the tables, though, to be as imbalanced in her favor as Act One is in his, and in this respect, Mamet's writing seems forced. Why can Carol suddenly attack John through the words of his own book which, in the previous act, she said she couldn't understand?
The lopsided dynamics of Who's Got Who are a teetery transition into the final act, when the two characters make their fiercest lunges for each other's throats. The Loeb production had its strongest moments here, as both actors uncovered a layer of rage they had not yet tapped. Their physical movements, formerly cagey and dry, were freer, sharper and more open. But by then, the show had already shipwrecked, its narrative power sunk by an essential emotional emptiness.
One reason for Oleanna's troubles was that Altman did not seem to have pushed her actors very much. Davidson and Kaye had learned their lines but were not living as their characters. At one crucial point in Act Three, Carol challenges John, "Do you hold yourself innocent of the charge of sexual exploitativeness?" Kaye bellowed the words with ardor, but as Davidson answered, her face and body went totally slack: her fists emptied, her brow unfurrowed, her posture slumped. She seemed to miss that rage exists in Carol's being, not in her words. The desperation, the wounded fury that motivate that kind of indictment, vanished as soon as her line was finished. An actor's seams should not show like this.
Davidson had trouble locating his character within the dialogue. He knew what John said, but he did not always know why, leaving the character without an arc. The concertina of pride and panic that Mamet composes for John was stripped of its subtleties. Instead, in each line, he strummed the same self-satisfied note.
In a line buried toward the end of Act Three, John tells Carol, "And now I owe you a debt." That line is essentially John's death knell: an admission of obligation, of defeat at the hands of a student, explodes his entire notion of self. Davidson missed the line completely and others like it that show us who John is or might have been. Instead, he favored the longer speeches, merely growing louder as the play hurtled forward. With no real foundation on which to base his portrayal, he reduced an intricate part to a pathetic boor.
This lack of coloring in his delivery also made John relentlessly predictable, robbing him of the sneaky sexual danger that he must have for Oleanna to work. John is written to resemble a basic solution, bitter and slippery. To present him so broadly robs him of the charisma that even Carol concedes he possesses. She has, after all, taken two semesters of his classes, so she must have had some reason for coming back.
The production values, at least, were clever in Oleanna. John's messy desk from Act One was rearranged into careful piles for Act Two, when he tries to maintain order against Carol's charges By Act Three, the desk was a mess again defeated like its owner.
And when the actors had their moments, they really had them. The physical grappling that ends Act II crackled onstage with John's frantic self-doubt scraping against Carol's assaulted dignity. Kaye's daringly quiet, remarkably pointed reading of Carol's plea "Will somebody please help me?" cast a perfect pall over a notoriously uneasy intermission.
Truth be told, either actor would be good in a less psychological, less subtle production than Oleanna, which needs all the extra subtlety it can get. The play fails at being, in Carol's terms, "not [about] my feelings, but the feelings of women, and men." Mamet himself stacks the deck too unevenly and too erratically for that. This play can only work when focused around the feelings of this one woman and this one man, but amidst all the yelling, the pushing and the politics, Oleanna lost even its human emotional core.
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