Misuse of Ivory Power

Both actors give excellent line readings, squeezing maximum discomfort out of their characters' situation. Tei, of course, has the thankless job of making a Mamet male his own, something that is nearly impossible given how hemmed-in all the playwright's men are by his trademark staccato dialogue. (With his buzz cut and short beard, Tei looks a bit like David Mamet.) He gives an acute performance nonetheless. At one point he uses his foot to play with the fringe on the rug near Carol's chair in a manner that implies John is oblivious to the intimacy (and the subsequent danger) of the meeting he is having with Carol.

Good acting aside, Oleanna has always been a play in which there is less than meets the eye, and this is something the Area Stage production can't really fix. On the surface Mamet seems to be using Carol to take shots at feminism. "Did you misuse it?" Carol accuses, speaking of John's abuse of power. "Sure you did. You're part of that group. You've done those things." John, then, becomes an all-purpose bogeyman for sexist pigs everywhere.

What this production does bring into relief, however, is Mamet's rabid anti-intellectualism. Now that the first wave of male anger and fear over the prospect of being accused of sexual harassment has subsided in the real world, Mamet seems to be less a misogynist than a blue-collar social critic. In Oleanna his real target may be the tender white underbelly of the liberal elite. He lets Carol rip into John's learned pretentiousness with unmitigated fury. When she's confused over his use of the word "transpire," John explains it means "happen." She blasts at him: "Then say it!"

Now consider John's ignorance. Theatergoers have long puzzled over Carol, who switches from victim to victimizer in a way that's not believable. But what about him? Does a man who has been accused of sexual harassment actually invite his accuser to visit him two more times in his office alone, with no witnesses? The professor's stupidity is akin to that of the woman in the horror film who, hearing that others have gone missing, wanders off into the deserted basement of a haunted house.

Why does John do this? Because Mamet has contempt for him and so turns him, too, into a ridiculous patsy. Mamet strips John of everything he values, not because he's unlucky enough to be victimized by a rabid feminist zombie, but because he uses too many big words. Is there a point to this? Oleanna is a contraption solely built to generate controversy. Any ideas it nourishes fall by the wayside.

Written by David Mamet. Directed by John Rodaz. With Paul Tei and Tanya Bravo. Through April 11. Area Stage, 645 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-673-8002.

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