At its best, David Mamet's 1992 play Oleanna pushes plenty of buttons concerning viewers' attitudes toward sexual politics and political correctness.
Unfortunately, the current Broadway revival at the John Golden Theater, while demonstrating that the play is timelier than ever, does little to erase the original impression that the playwright is dealing from a stacked deck. It comes across like a Rorschach test with the image already clearly defined.
For this version staged by Doug Hughes, Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles play the incendiary roles of pedantic New England college professor John and his troubled young student Carol. In the opening scene of the brief (80 minute) intermission-free work, the pair meet in his office, with John seemingly trying to counsel Carol over her difficulties in his class.
But the two characters -- speaking in an extreme version of the playwright's clipped, elliptical and repetitive style -- are barely able to get through to each other. John, constantly halting the conversation to take phone calls relating to his new house purchase and various other topics, becomes tongue-tied and fumbling in his efforts to reach his student. And Carol, failing to grasp the meanings of such words as paradigm, becomes increasingly belligerent and combative.
When John thoughtlessly indulges in sexually provocative language to make a point and at one point grabs Carol by the shoulder to prevent her from leaving in a huff, one begins to suspect that trouble is afoot. Sure enough, in the next scene, it becomes apparent that Carol has brought her professor up on charges that include, ridiculously enough, attempted rape.
Being supported by a feminist support group, she now uses the sort of politically correct verbiage that feels obviously coached. John, desperate to retain his tenure track, attempts to mollify her but only makes the situation far, far worse.
Oleanna is clearly the sort of play meant to provoke argument, and in that measure it succeeds. But its themes are undercut by its ill-shaped characterizations (particularly in the case of Carol, who comes across like a robotic banshee-cue debate) and less than credible situations. Would John really keep inviting Carol back to his office for private meetings, and why would she agree? And why does he keep halting these crucial encounters to take endless phone calls?
Stiles -- who previously played the role in a 2004 London production -- manages to find more shadings in the role than Rebecca Pidgeon did in the original. But the character is still nearly impossible to play. Pullman is very effective, bringing a neurotic intensity to his performance that evens the playing field somewhat. But he also has a tendency to overdo the character's mannerisms, and swallows his words so much that he is often difficult to understand.
Many of the Broadway performances are being followed by a Talk-Back Series featuring audience debates moderated by the likes of David Dinkins, Montel Williams and various legal, political and journalism figures. It's a smart move on the part of the producers, as these sessions are likely to prove far more involving than the contrived drama that precedes them.