November 09, 2000
at the Third Street Theatre
It's perhaps fitting, given Oleanna's stated themes of perception and miscommunication, that a second look at the play would seem to transform it. The L.A. premiere in 1994 at the Tiffany, directed by William H. Macy, felt to me as jury-rigged and deterministic as a mathematical theorem. In depicting a knockdown battle for understanding between a female college student and her male professor, playwright David Mamet appeared to attack what he saw as political correctness, particularly feminism, with a withering but callow indignation. Even the show's publicist at the time later told me he found the play "hateful."
In director Ernest A. Figueroa's taut new rendition at the cramped Third Street Theatre, Oleanna emerges as something else altogether: as a play of rare theatrical substance, for starters, and more unexpectedly as a tragedy of real and dangerously raw feeling. Most crucially, in Miguel Perez and Ariel Zevon, Figueroa has a nearly ideal pair enacting the play's unevenly matched scrimmages.
Perez, a sculpted, balding countenance peering out over his wire rims, settles formidably behind his desk or half-perches on it, in the classic pose of the pedant reaching out--or down--to enlighten the young. His professor is deliberate, discursive, superfluously smart; though he has a clear streak of intellectual vanity, this Achilles heel seems at first a saving grace, since the chance to be brilliant and sensitive seems to be one reason he sticks around to help his wildly confused student, Carol, improve her grade during extended office hours.
But Carol sees his interest in helping her, and his vanity and pedantry, in considerably darker terms, and on this pivots the play's departure into the minefield of politics, correct and otherwise. What gives the play its crucial balance, and gives Carol's demagogic arguments on class, race, sex, and language real provocative heft, is the extraordinary Zevon. In the first act, she seems literally unformed--her darting eyes and quivering mouth are stranded in a teenager's baby fat, and she clings to her notebook like it's a life preserver. We can see exactly how strange the professor's irritable, pseudo-Socratic ambivalence appears to her--especially since it comes couched in fulsome overtures of vulnerability and kinship ("Maybe we're similar," he says to her, sounding as dubious as she looks).
In the second act's two scenes, Zevon seems to have traded the baby fat for backbone. She's all poise, and the unfocused anger that bubbled out of Carol at first is now a guided-missile attack on everything dear to the professor, not least his masculine sense of entitlement. Indeed, if I must quibble, Zevon may be a little too poised and articulate by the end, and Perez a bit too deliberate throughout to nail some of the professor's more glibly unguarded moments. (While I'm quibbling: Gary Randall's set is minus an upstage exit door, and the lack of tension in Carol's continual almost-exits is felt. And I could have done without Figueroa's last-ditch attempts to spell out the play's themes with Renaissance paintings and an Emerson quote.)
A big part of the show's impact here lies in the intimacy of the small space: We're practically on top of these two--we couldn't be much closer--and yet as close as we get, we're still painfully aware of the irreparable gulf that grows between them. While I was surprised enough to find the play so much more meaty and multifaceted than it first appeared, the real shock here is its emotional power. Mamet has seldom seemed so agonized or searching as in the two scenes of Oleanna's second act, in which the tragic inevitability of the play's escalating conflict rubs hard against a desperate sense of opportunities lost, of roads not taken. The resulting friction almost feels like warmth.
"Oleanna," presented by and at the Third Street Theatre, 8140 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Oct. 21-Nov. 25. $15. (323) 957-4312.