Wednesday, October 14, 2009


This show should do wonders for the cause of online education. David Mamet's two-character play, at the Golden Theatre, is a study in sexual and class conflict that pits a self-involvement male college professor against an insecure, possibly psychotic, female undergrad who ends up accusing him of sexual harassment.

I know that world of higher education well on both levels. I’ve got two masters and I taught for many years -- on the graduate level at New York University and undergraduate at Brooklyn College. From those experiences I found Bill Pullman’s John a completely believable character. Pompous types like him abounded at N.Y.U., and were part of the reason I left the doctoral program there.

Julia Stiles’s Carol was more problematic for me. I’ve encountered plenty of students like her who had to work hard to afford college, but couldn’t accept her extreme sensitivity to John and his attitude that higher education is “prolonged systematic hazing.” She’s an upperclassman, so she should be used to prigs like that by now. The academic world is full of them, which is why I call it aca-nee-mia, because it’s so anemic.

As Carol grows more and more hostile, she refers to her “group” as backing her. I didn’t know at first whether she was referring to a group of students or her group therapy. It turns out to be the former but could just as easily have been the latter. If anyone ever needed psychotherapy it’s Carol.

It’s interesting to watch the power shift from professor to student. Carol goes from worrying about her grade to the heady thrill of knowing she controls whether John’s tenure, all but assured at the start of the play, will be given, which will determine whether he gets the mortgage he’s seeking, and that outcome will filter down to his family life. It’s a reversal of the Miss Julie story, which makes me even more eager to see After Miss Julie later this month.

Oleanna, only 80 minutes long, comes to Broadway following an acclaimed run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles last summer. Tony Award-winning director Doug Hughes, currently on Broadway as director of The Royal Family, directed both productions. The show had an Off-Broadway debut in 1992 just as Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and Anita Hill’s testimony brought the issue of sexual harassment to public consciousness.

Neil Patel designed the single set, a functional-looking office with a row of red brick 19th century buildings seen through the windows. For some reason Hughes has the automated Venetian blinds screech annoyingly up and down to mark the passing of scenes. Donald Holder’s lighting alone could have done that quite well.

Stiles, making her Broadway debut in Oleanna, was praised for her performance in a previous production of the play in London's West End in 2004 opposite Aaron Eckhart, directed by Harold Pinter. Mamet directed his screenplay for the 1994 film that featured Debra Eisenstadt opposite William H. Macy.

For tickets to Broadway’s Oleanna visit the box office, 252 W. 45th Street, or call (212) 239-6200.

A post-show talk-back forum is held after some performances. Visit for information.

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