What a cautionary tale can be seen in Oleanna! But it’s not the one playwright David Mamet thinks he’s making.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Mamet gave me some real thrill rides in the theater: Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Speed-the-Plow, and of course Glengarry Glen Ross. Alas, by the early ‘90s, that Mamet was dead and buried. American theater’s Angry Young Man, who once brought bold ideas that invigorated the art form, had become our Cranky Old Man, whose relentless whining nearly sucked the life out of it.
Oleanna (1992) was the first—and remains the most infamous—of Mamet’s paranoid, fear-mongering outbursts (in addition to plays, he’s written essays and books and given lots of interviews). In it, a young male college professor, John, who is about to earn tenure, is confronted by a female student, Carol. Initially, she comes to him with questions about the course materials. She’s having trouble understanding them, and John’s rather pompous and dismissive responses aren’t helpful.
Soon, though, it appears that’s not really the agenda. Sexual tension charges the air between them, and this, of course, is not a context in which that’s appropriate. The situation careens out of control. There will be blood… and there will be consequences.
Underneath it all, Mamet wants you to know he’s Mad as Hell. At academic politics in general. More specifically, at a world where (ahem) innocent flirtations that cross an unequal power dynamic can have dire consequences. He’s also pissed off at the younger generation, who aren’t sufficiently deferential.
Most of all, poor David M. is enraged at female undergraduates. Oh, they may pretend that what they want is an education. But don’t be fooled: their real purpose is to ruin hardworking, well-meaning men who only want to help them become their best selves. When you see a co-ed coming to your office hours, you better duck for cover—more than likely, she’s a combination Amazonian warrior and succubus, ready to destroy your body and soul. (Not that wives are much better, at least judging from the unheard but clearly hectoring phone calls John receives throughout Oleanna.)
I reject all of this on its face. Nevertheless, I’ll give Oleanna that it can (hell, it’s deliberately engineered to) provoke conversation, and there are intriguing elements in director Deb Marcucci’s production at Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3. The small space suits the play’s awkward intimacy.
More important, casting here is itself a bold statement. Jessica Johnson (Carol) and Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. (John) are among Philadelphia’s most sympathetic and likable actors. Neither has the prickly energy we associate with Mamet, but they have something more poignant. Both bring transparent emotional vulnerability to a script that sorely needs a humanizing dimension. Johnson, in particular, is heartbreaking in the first scene, so clearly struggling to comprehend the curriculum and feeling that she herself must be inadequate. Hobbs, in turn, is a kindlier John than I’ve seen previously in Oleanna productions.
It also makes a difference that Johnson and Hobbs are actors of color. Without changing the text, we have a new sense here of shared outsider-ness in the often exclusionary world of academia. This increases the stakes and deepens the subtext.
Ultimately, though, this Oleanna is as problematic as any other one. Hobbs is, by several decades, older than John should be: tenure normally happens in a professor’s early-mid career, likely in her or his 30s. (It’s revealing that Mamet, like so many writers, misunderstands the process. Tenure is in fact largely an assessment of the candidate’s professional output; here, it sounds like an in-person moral tribunal.) The age differential makes Oleanna even creepier, and although Hobbs’ gentle, venerable persona marks the play’s final moments, it also makes an already unfairly drawn battle seem even more off-balance—the mean girl is beating up on grandpa.
Not that any of these specifics matter much. Oleanna is a script too toxic and shallow to salvage. And despite his wild pamphleteering, in the years since writing it, ironically, the author has compounded the affront by attempting to shut down conversation about it, forbidding theaters from offering talkbacks and discussions.
Clearly, it’s vitally important to David Mamet that he have the last word—that you respect, even embrace, his anger.
Well, I’m the critic here, so I get the last word. Here’s what I want you to know (and the true cautionary tale here): Mamet was once a major playwright, but in Oleanna, he’s merely an asshole with a platform.
Oleanna plays at the Walnut Street Theatre through February 17. For more information, visit the website.