Oleanna’s Kept Her Looks, but Not Her Attitude

oleanna 5 Oleannas Kept Her Looks, but Not Her AttitudeI was a college freshman when the movie of Oleanna opened in late 1994, and already it seemed, to undergraduate eyes, a bit dated.

Oleanna, David Mamet’s tense two-hander about student-professor gender politics and power dynamics, was arriving in theaters only three years after Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court. And it was just two years after Oleanna’s successful stage-play debut Off Broadway. But in those heady early-Clinton years, as the post-p.c. era was dawning, the Reagan- and Bush-era campus culture wars seemed far away, at least to those then on campus. Another 15 years later, with the Broadway revival of Oleanna opening at the Golden Theatre Sunday night, its sexual-harassment standoff feels as historic an artifact as Justice Thomas’ can of Coke.

In Oleanna’s first scene, Carol, a student who doesn’t understand what’s been going on in class, comes to her professor’s office to ask for assistance; John, the professor—distracted, as-yet untenured and attempting to be compassionate—offers to help. In its second scene, Carol has filed a report with the tenure committee, accusing John of sexual harassment, and John is attempting to find out why. In its explosive final scene, he has been denied tenure, and Carol has accused him of rape.

That first scene is meant to be ambiguous—whose interpretation of the events is true, or at least more true?—but at the Golden it doesn’t play that way. This is partially because its culture-war language is today so unconvincing. (“I saw you, Professor. For two semesters sit there, stand there and exploit our, as you thought, ‘paternal prerogative,’ and what is that but rape,” Carol says at one point, sounding ridiculous to our 2009 ears but not, I think, meant to read as self-parody.)

But it is also because Julia Stiles, the lovely film actress, is so miscast as the student. She gives a good if inevitably mannered performance in her Broadway debut. (The always-mannered Rebecca Pidgeon, Mr. Mamet’s wife, originated the role.)

“You have no idea what it cost me to come to this school” is simply unbelievable coming from a poised, confident Wasp. She never seems harassed, only commanding. Bill Pullman, who plays John, is on the other hand shamblingly professorial from the first scene. Which means that the audience is automatically wondering only to what extent, and to what end, Carol has manipulated her professor.

During the two scene breaks, director Dough Hughes has automated Venetian blinds along the upstage wall of John’s office raise and lower themselves, with the hum of their motor amplified through the theater. That amplified hum grows obnoxiously louder, especially leading into the final scene, presumably to convey building frustration and anger. What’s left—and there is something—is an interesting portrait of interpersonal power dynamics, rendered in dexterously handled vintage Mamet dialogue.

 

OLEANNA IS A mere adolescent alongside The Royal Family, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s satire of the Barrymore family, which debuted on Broadway in 1927 and returned last week to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in Manhattan Theatre Club’s latest revival of an aged script that was in no particular need of reviving.

Granted, if you must revive The Royal Family, this is the way to do it. The cast is near uniformly excellent: Jan Maxwell plays Julie Cavendish, the reigning star of a legendary family of stage actors, and Rosemary Harris, who was Julie in the 1975 revival, plays her mother, Fanny, the aging Cavendish matriarch. They share a sprawling East Side duplex with Julie’s daughter, a promising ingénue played by Kelli Barrett; an overburdened butler and housekeeper; and, finally, when he returns from Hollywood with press and perhaps police giving chase, Julie’s brother, the womanizing bon vivant Tony Cavendish.

Jon Lee Beaty’s set is decadent and commanding, a huge Edwardian living room filled with overstuffed furniture, a grand piano, tchotckes on tables, stagebills on walls, and plenty of doors and hallways to be run in and out of. And the period costumes by Catherine Zuber are—pun intended, but unavoidable—exuberantly handsome.

The basic question of the night is whether these to-the-stage-born actors can be happy as normal people, folks who, for a change, value their romances and real-world commitments over their devotion to their craft. And in the second act, when Ms. Harris and Ms. Maxwell sing the praises of their profession with ardor and enthusiasm, when director Doug Hughes moves his many actors on and off the stage with farcelike speed and precision, bringing them together at center stage in perfect tableaux, everything comes together, and the audience is delighted.

But, alas, you’ve got to sit through a lot to get to those moments of delight. The boring first act is heavily expository—though one suspects it would be funnier if today’s audiences had a finer appreciation for Barrymore jokes—and the third is dull and maudlin. And, of course, we all know the answer to that main question from the moment the curtain first rises:

There’s no business like show business; there’s no people like show people; and of course all the Cavendishes will remain onstage.

I just saved you—well, Irving Berlin and I just saved you—three hours.

 

WHILE NEW YORK’S major institutional theater companies are keen to gaze wistfully at the past—whether that early-20th-century acting dynasty at MTC; Elvismania and the putting on of a happy face, starting tomorrow night at Roundabout; or the eternal question of whether one can in fact spend an enchanted evening with a man who has two half-Polynesian children, for a solid year and a half at Lincoln Center Theater—the Second Stage Theatre has the odd habit of confronting with the present.

Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s new one-woman show, which opened there last week, takes on current, pressing, real-world issues—life, death and the health care system—and it’s spectacular.

Ms. Smith is best known for her technique, performing monologues of real peoples’ words, mimicking each speaker, often with the aid of small props—glasses, a hat. The result is a series of impressive, uncannily realized performances. But it’s also something of a parlor trick, Rich Little in a legitimate theater.

Ms. Smith’s true genius lies in the editing. She is a wonderful actress, but she is an even better journalist. Let Me Down Easy uses the words of 20 different people, from whom Ms. Smith has elicited fascinating, moving, sad, funny and gut-wrenching stories. She knows how to ask questions, and she knows how to assemble the answers, well-crafted testimonials shaped into a well-crafted play.