David Mamet's war-between-the-sexes conundrum is nothing if not a tense night out at the theater. That's true if you're male, female, a college student, a professor, or merely an innocent bystander trying to figure out whether there actually is a watertight argument inside this situation tragedy. Oleanna is about a mild-mannered, insecure female student who comes to her professor for help and ends up turning the tables on him with accusations of sexual harassment.
Since its 1992 stage debut and subsequent transformation to the screen in 1994, the play has lost some of its power as a hand grenade in the gender wars. It explodes all right, and it is messy, but does Oleanna actually hit any target square on? At the Area Stage, where a compelling new production has opened under the direction of John Rodaz, the play, despite its shortcomings, is tightly coiled and ready to spring out at anyone who thinks the constantly ringing phone in the office of John, the professor, is going to bring some relief.
John is a guy so well intentioned that he's blind to how patronizing he appears when he promises his student Carol an A if she'll keep meeting with him. It's his fault, he insists, if she hasn't been able to learn anything in his course. "I understand your anger," he says, launching into a story about how he overcame his own feelings of stupidity and is happy to help her. Without ever really talking to her, he assumes a sympathy between the two of them. Meanwhile his pervasive condescension leaks into the jokes he makes about his upcoming tenure decision: "They have people voting on me," he says, "who I wouldn't employ to wash my car."
Carol, on the other hand, is a milquetoast of a girl, a nervous wreck dressed in shlumpy clothes and thick glasses. She sits hunched over in her chair. "What is everyone talking about?" she implores, implying she's caught in an academic maze where everyone recognizes the lay of the land except her. She begs John to explain terms she doesn't understand, words such as paradigm, and much later, of course, indictment. But Carol's ignorance and dumbfoundedness are apparently a cover for something less innocent. She may look like a lost coed, but she could transform herself into a witch at any moment.
Well, that's what Mamet wants us to believe. The second meeting between John and Carol comes soon after she's accused him of abuse of power and sexual harassment stemming from the events of their first meeting. If like John you are confused by what transpires, you are not alone. Was John's off-color joke harassment or merely tasteless? Is flaunting his position in academe a power play or merely a character flaw? John is arrogant, for sure, but is he so misguided that he needs to be taught a lesson at the cost of his tenure and his new house?
Oleanna (the title comes from an obscure folksong) reaches for but doesn't quite grasp the sharp horns of two issues: political correctness on campus and sexual power plays between men and women. The dramatic upshot seems to be a warning that men are now vulnerable to women, any of whom, presented with an ambiguous universe, will play the sexual harassment card to get the upper hand.
It doesn't help Mamet's argument that John is a full-fledged character whose family life, real estate goals, and absent-minded affection for his wife we learn about from his one-sided phone conversations. Carol is a mystery, a woman whose vocabulary grows logarithmically between the first two acts. (Unclear about the phrase "term of art" in Act One, she's tossing off phrases as polished as "this taste to mock and destroy" and "I think we should stick to the process" by Act Two.) She's also a cipher, less a character than a stand-in for all women.
Despite its logical holes, the power of Oleanna lies in its Pinteresque manipulation of two people in a single room, a dramatic texture this production emphasizes quite well. Sinister intrusions from the outside (in this case, John's constantly ringing phone with its updates about his doomed house purchase) threaten the already diluted comfort of the professor's office. Well before the play's complications heat up, Paul Tei's John pulls off a fascinating unscripted Mametism, by exhaling the phrase "I love you, too" to his wife over the phone in such a way that turns the utterance of an endearment into a hostile act.
J.C. Rodriguez's stage design, with its sparsely decorated academic office holding only a teacher's desk set and student chair, underscores the notion that these two people are at the mercy of forces from without. Even Carol, who inexplicably turns into a politically correct beast between Act One and Act Two, seems to be manipulated by something we can't see. Her character is an exceedingly difficult role to pull off; even Mamet seems unable to decide if we should be sympathetic to her. In this production Tanya Bravo infuses Carol with an intriguing determination, though her performance would be stronger if it weren't riddled with bursts of yelling.