REVIEW: Oleanna (American Theater Company)

| September 26, 2010

 

ATC Takes Mamet to School

 

 

Oleanna - American Theater Company 1 Oleanna - American Theater Company 3
   
American Theater Company presents
  
Oleanna
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Rick Snyder
at ATC, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through October 24  | 
tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching the American Theater Company’s production of Oleanna, you get the sense that the young David Mamet must have been really pissed off by one of his professors. The two-person academic melee screams with anger towards the ivory tower. I bet Mamet must have known and hated someone like John, the pedantic teacher on the brink of tenure. Helmed by director Rick Snyder, ATC’s Oleanna sears and fumes, leaving the audience awe-struck after the chilling finale.

The incendiary play races along for three acts. Each one depicts Jon (the towering Darrell W. Cox) and Carol (the contrastingly petite Nicole Lowrance) clamor for control, the fight escalating exponentially with time. Carol, a meek student well aware of the price of college admission, seeks academic freedom and understanding, while Jon fights for his right to dispense knowledge as he sees fit. His entire livelihood is at stake; he is in the final throes of achieving tenure and purchasing a house, and complaining Carol could ruin everything. And as much as Oleanna is about a teacher and student, it is about a man and a woman.

Oleanna - American Theater Company 2Seen by some as misogynistic, the play taps into the lingering sexism that survived third-wave feminism. When read or played wrong, Carol can come off as a nagging, soul-sucking imp. But Lowrance nails it; her Carol isn’t bright, but she wants to learn and becomes demoralized and angry when her arrogant professor tears into her high opinion of secondary education. I always find myself siding with her—yeah, she becomes vicious and cocky by the end, but Jon’s like that from the beginning, and has probably been that way for his entire teaching career. At times, Carol feels like a character who doesn’t want to be in a Mamet play. She sputters and gropes for words, unlike most of his creations with razor-sharp vocabularies, Jon included. Her inarticulateness actually grounds the character, who is probably one of the best concoctions Mamet’s typewriter has conceived.

Cox creates a fascinating portrayal of Jon, a man who paints himself as a social revolutionary but actually plays strictly by the rules, however elitist or sexist they may be. Cox’s Jon is surprisingly unassuming, speaking in crackly, tenor tones. He’s pompous and long-winded, but it comes out of a place of insecurity. Worn down by the stress of the real estate deal, he seems at the end of his rope, especially as Carol tosses wrenches into his plans. Cox also adds a stitch of creepy social awkwardness. When he consoles Carol by caressing her back at the end of Act One, everyone in the house was squirming in their seats.

Together, Lowrance and Cox are dynamite. They squawk rhetoric at each other, grabbing for the reins of the relationship. Snyder’s staging navigates the text wonderfully and sculpts the tension. For example, the famous brutal assault in Act Three springs like a trap and knocks the audience’s wind out. As it turns out, John is actually a terrific teacher because Carol becomes just as power-hungry as him.

Although usually well-forged, a few aspects of the production were muddy. One major issue is that we never really know why Carol continues to visit Jon. We’re left wondering if she’s just wrathful or driven by something more powerful than mere revenge.

ATC placed Oleanna alongside Speed-the-Plow (our review ★★★) to form a combo platter entitled “The Mamet Repertory.” Placing both plays next to each oddly pulls out similar themes in each. However, I preferred the claws-out combat of Oleanna to Plow’s Hollywood cynicism. The ending of Oleanna is superb. The characters are shattered, but there is no resolution, no catharsis. When the lights go down, we’re left gasping for air.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

 

    

Production Personnel

   
Playwright: David Mamet 
Director: Rick Snyder
Set Design: Jack Magaw
Costumes: Janice Pytel
Light Design: Jessica Harpenau
Sound Design: Kevin O’Donnell and Andrew Wheatley
Stage Manager: Katie Klemme
 
Ensemble: Darrell W. Cox, Nicole Lowrance,
Understudies: Jessie Fisher, John Luzar

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Category: 2010 Reviews, American Theatre Company, Barry Eitel, David Mamet

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