Welcome to academia: David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’ packs a punch

02/15/2012 10:10 PM

05/16/2014 6:06 PM

David Mamet’s “Oleanna” is a nasty little play that takes an uncompromising look at a subject some of us take for granted and others try not to think about – the instinctive desire for power over other people.

In this two-actor pressure-cooker we witness a clash between a college professor on the brink of tenure and a student who ultimately challenges the patriarchal privileges of his position. False assumptions are laid bare and raw emotions kick in when reason breaks down. Mamet provides an exceedingly bleak view of the war between the sexes.

In a strange way this piece manages to reflect Mamet’s formidable strengths as a dramatist while also exposing his weaknesses. The dramatic tension builds to the breaking point and Mamet expertly arranges his building blocks so that the inevitable meltdown in the play’s closing moments delivers the expected shock waves. In effect, we’re watching the good professor’s self-immolation.

But these characters are constructs, designed to present two sides of an argument. What ensues isn’t a debate exactly. Mamet, without much subtlety, strips away the superficial trappings of “civilized” behavior to reveal instinctual creatures circling each other in the hopes of planting a knife blade between the opponent’s ribs.

After it’s all said and done, Mamet seems to say, we’re all just animals.

You’ll get no argument from me on that point. The sharply performed production at the Living Room, directed by Katie Gilchrist, captures the play’s strengths and finds admirable ways to address its flaws.

David Fritts plays John, a professor who expects to be granted tenure any day now and is also negotiating to buy a new house to go with his new status. Carol, played by Lauren Friedlander, is a student who comes to his office in search of advice and guidance.

Like most of Mamet’s plays, this one has a strain of dark comedy running through it, and much in Fritts’ excellent performance as the pontificating John is very funny. And his growing rage as he finds himself out-maneuvered in game of personal politics is palpable.

I’ve seen several productions of this play and my principal complaint has always been the same: John’s character follows a coherent psychological progression, but some things about Carol’s behavior have never made sense. Can she really be as articulate as she is in the second act and still fail to understand the meaning of the word “paradigm?”

That’s a big hurdle for an actress to overcome, but Friedlander’s performance is the best I’ve seen. She’s obviously given careful thought to Carol’s back-story and she’s invested the character with an emotional dimension that helps explain some of her choices.

Indeed, she’s made Carol’s transformation (which takes place during intermission) from insecure young woman in search of an identity to a one-woman wrecking crew plausible.

So this may not be my favorite Mamet play.

But so what? Second-tier Mamet is still better than most plays out there. And if you want to see two good actors making the most of an interesting script, this production is worth your while.

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