David Mamet’s “Oleanna” was called one of the 10 best plays of the year when it appeared on Broadway in 1992. It could have just as easily been called one of the most maddening plays of that year. About a sexual harassment case between a self-assured professor and his grudge-bearing student, “Oleanna” showed up after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas event and pushed all the politically incorrect buttons in an era rife with politically correct notions.
The play was a hit, but not so much because it’s Mamet’s best work. Certainly “Oleanna” has its moments, but the characterizations are uneven and the language doesn’t have the same lyrical cynicism as, say, “Glengarry Glen Ross” or “The Duck Variations” (two earlier Mamet plays).
“Oleanna” succeeded — and continues to succeed in small companies such as the Belfast Maskers, which opened the show over the weekend — because it taps into many of the contemporary ambiguities between men and women. The confusing part is that is does so with an insistent and incendiary tone. At the heart of this plot are questions about the look of sexual harassment, the hierarchy of power and the way language helps shape — and expose — sensitivities and biases.
Don’t expect to have any of those questions answered. But here’s one you better start asking if you plan to go to this show with someone of the opposite sex (and, really, there’s no other courageous way to go): Is your relationship strong enough to last through a play that yanks sympathies up, down and into every niggling, rankling nuance of sexual politics?
Maskers director Hal Owen takes hold of Mamet’s script with both restraint and punch, a necessary combination for a story of such subtlety and idiosyncracy. He has made a particularly laudable choice in casting Terry Burgess as John, the professor whose recent recommendation for tenure has given him the capability to put a deposit on a house for his family.
Burgess doesn’t have the stereoptyical look of an academic — even though he wears a turtleneck shirt and tweed jacket. Within seconds, however, he exposes his blow-hard character as odiously self-absorbed and blindly complacent about privilege. Burgess has an impetuous grace about his acting, and takes the audience for a potent ride through his troubles.
When Carol, played with less finesse by Alexandra Whitney, shows up unexpectedly in his office to complain about her failing grade and to expose that she is hopelessly lost in his class, John puffs up his chest and talks about his own history as a low achiever. He proposes that higher education is nothing more than “prolonged and systematic hazing,” and reaches a comforting hand out to Carol. Or at least, that’s what he thinks has gone on.
By Act II, John’s tenure, house and career have been thrown into jeopardy by Carol’s official charges of sexual harassment, elitism and pornographic advances. She’s the one in turtlenecks and tweeds now, and she’s the one grading his performance.
From there, the play snowballs emotionally and ends up in an unfortunate explosion of violence. It’s a harrowing place to stop — especially since the title “Oleanna” is an obscure reference to a 19th century folk song about an escapist vision of utopia.
There’s no way to know exactly what has happened to your head after this effectively upsetting production. You feel for John, and you hate him. You feel for Carol, but you hate her, too. In fact, you hate her more because Mamet hates her more.
The point may be that the battle of the sexes can be horrifyingly shifty, and Mamet presents this little tantrum of a poisonous drama to underscore that. Expect to be mad. And try not to hit.
The Belfast Maskers will present “Oleanna” at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 1 at the Railroad Theater in Belfast. For tickets, call 338-9668.