… he said, she said …
Oleanna is a parable of social revolution along the lines of Bonfire of the Vanities or Animal Farm. It doesn’t have the internal consistency that’s made those a kind of starting point for thinking, but still, it resonates.
What first hits one is the glamorous set, a vast and luxurious professor’s office beyond anything in the Ivy League, let alone an office for an untenured college prof at Oleanna. It’s used to underline the power and class disparities between the Professor and the student but spells, “this isn’t real.”
Carol, a college student in danger of failing a course visits her Professor, John, in that office to understand why she’s not doing better and get him to give her another chance.
Each is under pressure, Carol not to fail, and John because he’s currently under consideration for tenure. Mamet ups the stakes for John: betting on a post-promotion raise, he’s settling on a bigger and better house ahead of time (what’s the rush? I doubted he’d be that foolish.) Carol doesn’t “get” what John tries to explain about her academic weaknesses and John becomes frustrated and over-excited about that and everything else. Mamet sure knows how to set up a conflict and write peppery dialogue to go with it, complete with naturalistic interrupted sentences, and these fine actors have perfect timing.
The script begins its slide into unbelievability, though, about those academic weaknesses. The sentence John reads aloud from her paper is illogical, but no liberal arts student who attends all classes, listens attentively, takes copious notes, checks in with the teacher in his office for more clarification, who is from a lower class background, and who really tries like Carol, fails courses because of her writing — certainly not in recent history. (If they did, who’d be left in class?)
John’s hyper state leads him to do several things not quite right for a Professor dealing with a student. He reveals too much emotional intensity about personal and professional topics, from problems closing on the house and the too constant phone calls to the ideas in his book (of course required reading). He tries too hard to get Carol to understand not only her academic difficulties but his professional opinions and mind set. Once or twice he sits on the same sofa: watching, one can see not great judgment but nothing truly out of hand. Carol, meanwhile, seems quite unintelligent, her responses so off the point we wonder how she could have pulled together even a badly written paper.
After a time, Carol returns to the office, having filed complaints with the tenure committee about John on several points, raising John’s level of tension. She visits again, and then again, each time having raised the ante from complaints about his teaching to more sensational charges, from the tenure committee to the courts. Their power arcs intersect as intensifying threats send John downward toward fear and despair and Carol upward on an impact surge. With the speed of light, Carol changes from being verbally weak to throwing off sophisticated, politicized arguments about gender and class with astonishing fluency.
We know he didn’t do much of what she claims to get him into big trouble, but that she’s turned emotionally driven phrases and gestures into hard-edged errors and crimes in order to destroy him. Since it’s just her word against his, however, he’s helpless, or so we’re to think.
Oleanna is most effective in its open-ended exploration of its secondary theme, class conflicts in the academic context. Carol, who “has worked really hard to get here,” is enraged that her college professor has written about education, the very system that pays him and lets him live better than anything she ever knew, in a sarcastic and dismissive way. She has a point.
To punch home his main political argument, however, Mamet forswears the consistent character development of his Speed-the-Plow, off-Broadway last year, and American Buffalo, reviewed by me here. Oleanna is written with dramatic power, but it would be a more compelling exploration of victimization through untestable sexual harassment charges, and generally of determining guilt without witnesses, if the thought “that’s not real,” didn’t keep intruding.
Oleanna plays at the Golden Theatre, 45th Street West of Broadway, NYC.