By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Cecil O'Neal, director of Kitchen Dog Theater's pressure-cooker production of Oleanna, proclaims in the playbill that "no one is right in this play...Both characters are flawed."
The dude is right, and the chick is wrong. You know it, I know it, and any one who sees this play (mad-dog feminists excluded) will know it, too.
So what if the college prof is a pedantic, self-serving, and ever-so-slightly sexist prig? So what if his coed student feels like society's deck is stacked against her? Is that any reason to jeopardize a man's career, to threaten his livelihood, to snatch away the roof over his family's head?
But I see I'm getting a little carried away here. A little exercised, you might say, like when a zebra makes an egregious call in a particularly significant gridiron contest--knowwutImean, fellas? So let's just step back a minute, review the plot of this very provoking production, and then see where we stand.
Oleanna, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author David Mamet (who also directed the big-screen version), is about a college professor who, flushed by his all-but-approved bid for tenure, is closing on a home. He receives a visit in his office from a female student who's having trouble grasping the finer points, and even the blunter points, of what's going on in class. She literally can't understand what the professor is saying, and she can't decipher the textbook he has written. He, in turn, literally can't understand the paper she has written and is consequently giving her a poor grade.
In the ensuing negotiations, the professor dilates a bit on his personal background (he, too, felt like a "programmed idiot" as a youth), tells a mildly off-color joke to cut the tension, lays a comforting arm on the girl's shoulder, and agrees to reconsider her grade if she will come to his office for additional private tutoring. Though his manner is sometimes a tad Olympian, his intentions are clearly honorable. In fact, he bends over backward for a student of little acumen and less charm.
The next thing you know, he's about to be hauled before the tenure committee and charged by the girl with sexual harassment. If he can't dissuade her from proceeding with her complaint, he stands to lose both his job and the deposit on his new home.
Mamet, like Paul McCartney's grandfather in A Hard Day's Night, is a mixer. He likes to stir people up and set them at odds with each other, and he certainly succeeds with his play. By the end of the third act, when the coed has presented her viewpoint (and seen it vindicated in some ways by the professor's behavior), audiences' perceptions of which character is in the right often are polarized along gender lines. Vehemently so.
And yet the morality of the characters in this play is not as murky as it may seem. Both the professor and the student have their points to make, but one is fundamentally right and the other is fundamentally wrong. The bitter joke here is that prevailing notions of political correctness obscure this fact. Today we can watch a woman accuse a man of rape when he has done no more than grab her arm and feel that perhaps her accusation is justified. And if the man loses his income by consequence, haven't men deprived women of economic advantage for years?
It's a smarmy little game of PC cat-and-mouse that Mamet's playing, but he gives it away with one line, just as he did in Speed the Plow, a play with similar themes of truth and power. In the latter play, the line was, "But we have a meeting!" In Oleanna, it's, "Don't call your wife 'baby.'" In both lines a scheming, oh-so-disingenuous female negates the high-flown rhetoric she's been spouting for an entire play by revealing what she's really after--power. Of course, the professor wants power, too, but he's willing to work for it through the accepted channels of academia, i.e., hairsplitting scholarship and sedulous ass-kissing. He's not prepared to destroy for it, as is his student.
This is a taut, expertly performed production that lays out every card in the stacked script like a smooth, apparently impartial Las Vegas croupier.
Dan Day is particularly effective in the first act as the professor at ease in his office, generously opening his heart to a benighted student while enjoying the mellifluousness of his own words. His precise, clipped phrases are laid out with a short pause at the end during which they are meant to be savored.
In his dealings with the "real world," however, he is far less cogent. In fact, speaking with real-estate agents and others on the telephone, he can barely get a thought in edgewise. Academia clearly is a cherished refuge for him, which escalates the stakes when his world is rocked in acts two and three.
Shannon Lynch (a real Southern Methodist University student), by contrast, seems mannered and a little outclassed in act one. In acts two and three, however, her trenchant, bug-eyed coed takes on the real glittering menace of fanaticism. There is something truly wrong with this girl, a mystery hinted at but never explained. The professor has as little business tangling with her as the winner of a frat fight night would climbing into the ring with Mike Tyson.