‘Oleanna’: Brilliant and nuanced, but how can this be good?

Divided into three acts, Oleanna tells the story of what occurs in the three meetings between student Carol (Joy Reiger) and her professor, John (Dan Shapira), in his office.

By HELEN KAYE
May 27, 2019 21:36
2 minute read.
‘Oleanna’: Brilliant and nuanced, but how can this be good?

JOY REIGER and Dan Shapira appear in ‘Oleanne.’ (Or Denon). (photo credit: OR DENON)

It’s incredibly tempting in this era of #MeToo to see Mamet’s Oleanna – which first premiered in 1992, the heyday of political correctness and not incidentally the Anita Hill/Clarence Day hearings in which Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Day of sexual harassment – as a kind of indictment of both a smugly secure and obtuse male and the initially clueless and later vindictive female.

It’s not, but more on that later.

Divided into three acts, Oleanna tells the story of what occurs in the three meetings between student Carol (Joy Reiger) and her professor, John (Dan Shapira), in his office. Carol is there to plead with him not to fail her.

She’s cute, in a trashy kind of way, and soon-to-be-tenured John – let’s face it – patronizes her big time in the intervals between phone calls from his wife and his lawyer.

He reassures her, puts his arm around her shoulders, and tells her that things can be worked out.

In Act II, Carol, more assured now and with a “group” behind her, pulls the rug out from under John’s feet. She has accused him of sexual harassment and he’s called her to his office. “Let’s work this out” he says, but things only get worse.

In Act III, John has lost his job and his wife and now faces a criminal indictment of rape. He calls Carol, now openly flaunting her newly acquired power, to his office to ask why, but ends by physically attacking her.

This is a brilliant play about two rather nasty people in a progressively destructive situation. Sara von Schwartze and her actors have done a pretty sterling job of putting it all together, even if there is too much initial familiarity between the characters. The actors know each other well.

The characters shouldn’t. There’s also a nuanced progression: Reiger as Carol starts her out with restless feet and the body language of insecurity, and progresses to sleek all black, hair-tied-back fluid confidence.

Shapira’s John starts out neatly put together, very happy with himself and his life, and ends up disheveled and near incoherence.

It’s a brilliant play – but. The physicality of the ending is contrived. John uses words, not fists, as his weapons, but that’s the way Mamet wrote it and Shapira affects it very well.

But Oleanna in 1992 and in 2019 are very different propositions, the latter being the scary one. In 1992, Oleanna was about veracity, power, accountability between men and women, and by default, in society. #MeToo is an overdue extension of that.

In 2019, Oleanna is about monologues, which have replaced discourse. The characters in Oleanna hear, but they do not listen. They talk at, not to each other.

Perhaps that is why the actors deliver their lines at breakneck speed and without a single pause, in the way Mamet writes into his work to indicate what could be said, what might be said, what’s being perhaps thought. But if nobody’s listening...

This Oleanna is about a creeping deafness that is overtaking us all. How can that in any way be good?


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