Mamet Goes to College

"Higher education is ritualized annoyance." That's a professor trying to explain to his student why the course lectures may seem confusing, unorthodox, even enraging. But he might as well be speaking for the playwright, David Mamet, and his Oleanna, which is currently receiving a faithfully blistering production on the Alley's Arena Stage. Mamet's portrayal of education is thoroughly in keeping with the radical skepticism of most of his work, and with his corrosive sense of the limits of human communication. In Mamet's universe, we use language primarily as a means to keep from telling each other the truth.

Oleanna, which premiered in New York in 1992, is Mamet's most explicitly topical play, dealing directly with the volatile issue of "sexual harassment." Mamet has said that he began the play before and revised it in the wake of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy. Thoroughly theatrical, the play is not likely to make anybody change sides. Indeed, with an almost mathematical concentration, Mamet attempts to give each "side" its due, thereby calling into question the nature of the debate itself.

The name "Oleanna" refers to a lost utopian community, and Mamet's use of it here is entirely ironic. In Richard H. Young's simple and quite un-utopian set, a desk, a telephone, a hardwood floor and four chairs shape the arena for Mamet's claustrophobic psychodrama of knowledge and power. Under the straightforward direction of Alley dramaturge Christopher Baker, the play enacts a conventional portrait of the student/teacher relationship -- and then ruthlessly undermines it, revealing an initially comic and finally desperate struggle for control.

The premise is simple, even hackneyed: a student, Carol (Tiffany Fraser), has come to see a professor, John (Jim Frangione), about her coursework, at which she is apparently failing. But it's an unscheduled, rushed appointment, the student is inarticulate and the professor condescending, and whenever there's a glimmer of mutual understanding, the professor is distracted by phone calls concerning his pending purchase of a house. Mamet charges this ordinary occasion (the play's two acts consist solely of three private meetings between the two characters) with tension and ambiguity: seemingly innocent words and gestures will become suspicious in retrospect, and Mamet's characteristic language-play of broken, hesitant, incomplete syntax be-comes a contrapuntal music to the uncertain meaning of the words.

These details of language are surprisingly comical at first: sentences stop in mid-phrase again and again; neither professor nor student completes a thought before the other can derail it, and on the edge of a moment of revelation -- "I've never told this to anyone before" -- the phone rings, of course. These jokes, Mamet's too-real parody of American conversation, are on the audience as much as on the characters. Lacking all continuity, the dialogue requires prodigious memorization and technique from the actors. Frangione is rather better at Mamet-speech than Fraser, and is particularly deft on the phone, pointedly slashing half-sentences like "If it's nec-" and "I'm sure it's go-"; Fraser has the visible manner of an overwhelmed coed, but isn't quite as adept at investing meaning in the seemingly meaningless. (Although Fraser has played the role before, she was a late substitution for the previously announced player, and her rhythms may not have been fully rehearsed by opening night.)

The almost lightheartedly satiric tone of Act One is abandoned after intermission. The previously subconscious antagonisms are now out in the open. Fortified by a brush with a dogmatic version of campus feminism, Carol has brought charges against John for sexual harassment, her primary evidence his behavior in their first meeting. As before, we watch only their private conversations about the matter. Mamet is less interested in the bitter public denouement of Carol's charges than the private "revolution" in their relationship; by the end of the play, the veneer of civilized discourse is entirely stripped away, and the office has become an interrogation room full of naked human emotion.

The premiere of Oleanna provoked a cloud of arguments about Mamet's intent and sympathies, but it seems obvious that for him the "verdict" is less important than the theatrical opportunity of warring perspectives and emotions. Indeed, if anything the play seems so abstract as to be removed from the real world of teachers, students, colleges and campuses. We never know quite what it is that the professor teaches, and the student's generic feminism is derived only from her otherwise unnamed "group." By taking this archetypal, almost geometric approach, Mamet largely sacrifices his greatest strength, his ferocious verisimilitude (e.g., the hellish real estate office of Glengarry Glen Ross), which survives only in the broken lilt of his fragmentary language. (When Carol, armed with her ready-made ideology, begins speaking in long, coherent sentences, we can be sure it's a sign of intellectual corruption.) As a result, Oleanna is more programmatic and less interesting than one expects of this playwright.

The finally unsympathetic portrayal of the student has made several critics conclude that Mamet is simply a misogynist. But John, with his hectoring rudeness and blindness to the effects of his own actions, doesn't come off much better. He's just punished more severely. A more simple explanation is that Mamet has never had as much feel for his women as for his men, and that he doesn't quite know how to establish Carol's character and transformation. Her political conversion is telescoped and she comes off, finally, as a caricature. She is a contemporary Caliban: her "group" has taught her language, and her profit from it is that she knows how to harangue.

Speaking of language, it's illuminating to see Mamet in juxtaposition with the Tennessee Williams of Orpheus Descending, as they represent two extremes of the range of American language on stage. Williams is all Southern baroque poetry, grandiloquent and feverish; Mamet is staccato uncertainty and suggestion, the broken eloquence of ordinary speech. Worlds different as they are, both writers seem grimly to conclude that their characters are locked in a prisonhouse of language, battering at the walls.


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