It may sound surprising to some, but I have long suspected that David Mamet may one day be regarded as highly as Shakespeare is today: as a playwright of such skill, breadth, and intellect that every element of his work -- from dialogue to plot to premise to characterization -- expresses such fundamental human truths, and with such exquisite craftsmanship, that his plays easily transcend the rigors of time. His latest masterwork, Oleanna, now being afforded a splendid production in the Encore Room of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, just further reinforces my lofty opinion of this contemporary genius.
It is also fitting that Oleanna, his most controversial, thought-provoking work, inspired passionate emotions within me, as it will no doubt within each audience member who sees it. Above all else, I am outraged by the host of critics and commentators who have dubbed this play misogynistic, or who continuously and erroneously claim that it is primarily about sexual harassment. This superficial and misinformed interpretation serves as a perfect example of what Mamet addresses in the work itself: that in this society dominated by concerns over political correctness, everyone behaves and thinks with alarming confusion and sometimes harmful stupidity. And worst of all, no one can speak or write the truth as they personally view it. Rather, everyone -- other than Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh -- must follow the fashionable opinion of the moment. (And, of course, political correctness has no greater stranglehold than in the arts.)
That a modern playwright could construct such an engaging evening and at the same time evoke such strong emotions emphasizes the comforting fact that true art is not dead. For it is the ultimate goal of the great writer not only to entertain but also to challenge the spirits and minds of the viewers.
As always, Mamet's ear for human interaction and conflict is impeccable. In fact, he is almost frighteningly realistic, down to precisely penning the speech rhythms of a man speaking to his hysterical wife on the phone. Few playwrights can reconstruct the real world so acutely. By doing so, Mamet makes his points to maximum effect. We see our world perfectly mirrored in his portrayals, and then once he has hooked us in, he mercilessly shows us exactly how ridiculous, petty, and pathetic most of us are.
Strangely, this production's famed director Luke Yankee and Coconut Grove Playhouse artistic director Arnold Mittelman apologize in the program notes for the first act, noting that it is just "the exposition," and that when the team saw the play Off-Broadway, "at the conclusion of act one, we were reluctant to commit to what we had just seen." I have no idea why.
From the start of the piece, Mamet presents exciting drama wedded to titillating ideas. The very timid student Carol comes to the office of about-to-be-tenured professor John to find out why she can't learn. Within this act, Mamet introduces his major concept -- that some people feel inadequate no matter what they try to achieve, simply because they come from the wrong background, sex, sexual preference, whatever. To these people learning becomes a form of "ritualized hazing," and ascending to the highest rungs of society appears to be an impossible goal. They have been left out of the "club." They have no power internally -- no sense of self -- because they have been subtly undermined by society's messages. Therefore, they can rarely hold positions of professional power, either.
Certainly, in act two, when Carol reveals her more spurious purpose for visiting John in his office, and seizes the upper hand she pretends to lack, the action truly ignites. I won't ruin the play by telling you anything more about the plot, but I will insist that if you listen carefully, you'll understand that Carol could have been played by a homeless man, or by a member of any downtrodden minority group. Mamet is not talking about sexual harassment here, or how women and men see working situations, but about empowerment, about how the have-nots must finally in the end use unethical means to break down a society that has oppressed them for far too long.
If all this seems a tad too heavy, fear not -- Oleanna is also a psychological thriller, a mystery, a treat on all levels. This is the play you must see this season. Director Luke Yankee does a masterful job of bringing Mamet's challenging script to life in an intimate space, and he has an excellent cast to guide. Although Anderson Matthews's portrayal of John may at first seem artificial and stilted, it is actually sublime. He produces reality and at the same time embodies the self-aggrandizing, pompous male academician with full plumes extended. Matthews also wisely chooses to make John just sympathetic enough, so that his comments to female students (e.g., "don't you look fetching") are not as infuriating as they would be had he chosen to play the part with more machismo.
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Christina Rouner as the frumpy, uncertain but also vitriolic Carol is a revelation. Acting just doesn't come any better than this. She, too, knows how to carefully walk the line between kindness and rage. She conveys an honesty so precise it is almost shocking to watch. Rouner is that rare performer that makes the audience feel like a voyeur to a true-life situation.
In New York, where the play opened last year, audiences supposedly argued among themselves during the intermission and all the way home. In Los Angeles, a tempest now surrounds its opening at the Mark Taper Forum, where Mamet requested the professor be played by a black man and the artistic director rejected the playwright's suggestion. It seems as though Oleanna has an impact like a stone thrown into a pond, its effects rippling outward from the stage into society. It starts with the work itself, which expands like a wave to include the audiences' divided opinions, which grows to encompass the critics' arguments about what the play means and spreads still further to include how modern society deals with a play that too precisely and accurately attacks today's social currents.
At the very end of the piece, when the final explosion has come, in the last seconds when the truth finally has been unveiled, only then can the two characters begin to communicate on the same level. Perhaps the audience and those who write about the play must challenge their own needs to be politically decorous and be willing to unveil their honest opinions about race, religion, economic status, and gender, no matter how harsh they may be.
Without a doubt, Oleanna represents what the Greeks meant drama to create: an examination of the human condition, and a cathartic experience for the audience. So despite all the naysayers and technocrats, the grand tradition of live theater still thrives. In this holiday season, I give thanks for David Mamet, and to the Coconut Grove Playhouse for offering South Florida such a wonderful dramatic gift.