You should be nervous. A feverish clock punctuates every word, every silence. John (Tim Perry), a college professor, is wrestling witha phone and a crowded desk. Studiously, then furiously, Carol (Darcy Jo Martin) squints at her notebook and flips the cramped pages. She has tried everything, and yet she cannot understand any of the material John is teaching in class, which incidentally is about learning and cognition. John tries hard to inspire. He even fends off increasingly frenetic calls from his real estate agent and his wife and ends up missing a surprise party celebrating the announcement of his tenure. Imploring Carol to stay, he promises to replace her dismal final grade with an ‘A’ if she allows him to go over the course material with her again. When a frazzled Carol asks John why he is treating her so exceptionally, John simply says, “I like you.”
Oleanna is no Dead Poet’s Society. First staged to critical acclaim in Cambridge, M.A., in 1992, and later turned into a startlingly less compelling film following off-Broadway success, David Mamet’s contentious two-character play will appear this month at The Reader’s Theatre under the direction of Anne Marie Cummings. Even when the lights dim for the first time, there is no music, unlike in previous Readers’ Theatre productions. The clock persists. The innocuous phrase “I don’t understand” becomes the play’s bleak refrain, and as the characters spar it becomes harder to tell who has the right to teach. The genius of Mamet’s play is that you don’t notice how everything that is a certainty at the start of the play’s start seems founded on quicksand as the end draws near.
Mamet goes out of his way to antagonize, to mostly spectacular effect. To John, college education is “hazing,” a kind “ritualized annoyance” that students too unquestioningly covet because society has misled them into thinking that higher education is a right. His words irk Carol, who deems them sexist and elitist, and her anger is not unjustified. The extent of her wrath astonishes. With the newfound backing of a shadowy, presumably feminist “group,” Carol accuses John of sexual harassment and lodges a formal complaint with the tenure committee. She causes John to lose everything — his tenure appointment, his new house and perhaps even the trust of his family.
As John, Perry allows a gripping vulnerability that makes it hard for the viewer to see him as the ignorantly monstrous, power-hungry hypocrite that Carol makes him out to be. There is a gentleness about his self-deprecating attempts to put Carol at ease when she first arrives, desperate and disillusioned, at his office. Although verbose and pedantic, John’s banter about “the tenure committee, here to judge me” and his own youthful struggles with self-worth and failure seems imperfect but guileless. It’s far too tempting to dismiss Carol as hopelessly maladjusted, reactionary and lost. She has several less than poetic lines that seem lifted from half-remembered movies — “you little yapping fool” and “you’re not god” are some of the pointed insults Carol hurls at John during their concluding conversation. It’s apparent that Carol is troubled; midway through John’s lecture she succumbs to a panic attack and manages an anguished, “I’m bad.” Along with John, we struggle to make sense of Carol, and oscillate between sympathy and frustration. At some points, it seems as if Carol might just be making sense — isn’t it fair to construe John’s sexually explicit remarks as a kind of subtle harassment? But our compassion is vehemently tested. John’s incredulous rage is perfectly comprehensible when Carol declares, impassioned, “I saw you, Professor, for two semesters, sit there, stand there and exploit your, as you thought, ‘paternal prerogative,’ and what is that but rape?” Her parting shot, crossly delivered as John attempts to reassure his wife over the phone, stuns: “Don’t call your wife ‘baby’.”
Titled after a Norwegian folk song in which composer Ole Bull lays out his vision of the United States as an ideal society, Oleanna is steeped in political entanglements. Looming ominously over the play’s testy proceedings is the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy which drew national attention to workplace sexual assault and ignited a wave of workplace reform. Crucial as all this may be, though, it can detract from some of the play’s most exquisite moments. John’s early sermon on failure and worthlessness, is one instance: “I feel unworthy; I feel unprepared. I must fail.” Pointing out the ludicrous reality of being enslaved to “some joke thing that some school kid told me that took up space within my head,” John goes on to describe how he “worked [his] way out of the need to fail.” If you’ve had a youthful addiction to a certain kind of sadness, John’s words might prove cutting.
As the Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert has observed, of the off-Broadway production, we leave Oleanna enraged but unsure of the cause of our rage: Is it political correctness or sexual exploitation that disconcerts us? Or perhaps we’re annoyed by seemingly endless academic bickering — “my paradigm is better than your paradigm,” as Perry expressed it, following Wednesday’s rehearsal. Or maybe we’ve been so conditioned by this paternalistic, sycophantic system that we’re too deluded to tell. What we want, and can only hope to guess at, is the truth.
Oleanna opens Feb. 22 at 111 Chestnut Street, the Black Box Theatre at Lehman Alternative High School. For ticket information, visit www.thereaderstheatre.com.