Saturday, October 17, 2009

Theater Review: Oleanna

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
A Battle of the Sexes and Reality vs. Fantasy
By Lauren Yarger
A young college student meets with her professor to ask for help understanding the course in which he’s flunking her. He agrees to give her extra tutoring. Beyond that, there is little room for agreement between the two on what really took place in what becomes a fierce power struggle in David Mamet’s Oleanna on Broadway.

Film star Julia Stiles (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mona Lisa Smile,” "Save the Last Dance,” among others) makes her Broadway debut as Carol, who appears unexpectedly at the office of her professor, John (Bill Pullman), to plead for her grade. She doesn’t understand anything, she tells him with a sad a vulnerable look, done so well by Stiles that you want to go up there an put an arm around her (though her rather chic outfits by Catherine Zuber aren’t accurate portrayals of the jeans and sweats most college women wear).

John is distracted and takes numerous calls from his wife and realtor about the impending purchase of his new house, but finally delays joining them at the closing to try to help Carol. He feels responsible for her not understanding what he has been teaching, so he offers her regular tutoring sessions, and even an A in the course, if she’ll give him a chance to explain the material. She feels vulnerable and offers to share something with him that she’s never told anyone, but just then the phone rings again and John goes to answer it.

What happens next is a he-said, she-said second meeting, as Carol files a complaint against John saying that he made inappropriate comments and advancements toward her during the meeting. She accuses him of being on a power trip and of mocking her and students like her who have struggled through economic and other hardships to get into college with his flip comments about the futility of education. And she asserts that he made inappropriate advances. He tries to reason with her to get her to retract the complaint, which will jeopardize his tenure and possibly result in the loss of his new house.

When the two meet again (although, why either would put themselves in such a vulnerable position is only answered by the playwright’s need for an ending scene), the empowered Carol, who has been bolstered in her suit by a supportive, but unidentified “group,” has successfully won her case before the tenure review board, who ruled in her favor and fired John. Now, she’s considering bringing additional charges. In a full circle, John, completely weak and powerless, admits that he hates Carol, and now it is he who tells her that he doesn’t understand anything.

It’s a disturbing play that raises lots of questions, and is noticeably devoid of the usual foul language in Mamet’s works. Some of the rapid fire, ping-pong type of dialogue for which he is famous appears, but in this production it falls flat, mostly because Stiles’ timing is off. It’s brief, though, and the rest of the dialogue is compelling, made even more intriguing by the fact that questions remain even though we were “in the room” with them and heard the entire conversation that started this whole mess.

Were Carol’s actions premeditated and did she manipulate John? Did she start out genuinely trying to get help, find a way to get even when he didn’t give her situation the attention it deserved? Is she psychotic? Is John guilty of the accusation or is he the unwitting victim? Or is it all just an inability of men and women to understand each other?

Doug Hughes directs the tense drama with violent scenes, though Pullman seems to do a lot of walking from place to place just to give him something to do. In addition, some automatic blinds on the office windows (set design by Neil Patel) laboriously open and close in between the scenes – an overstated and annoying metaphor to remind us that no one except the two characters knows what really is happening in the office. A masterful touch, though, is having the two actors remain distant during the curtain call. The spell of the play would have been broken with the holding of hands or smiling at each other during the bows.

The play, written at the height of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, still is relevant today and a "Take a Side" talk-back series has been held following the performance where panelists, many of them celebrities, and audience members discuss the various possibilities. This production comes to Broadway form Los Angeles where it had a run at the Mark Taper Forum. Oleanna, by the way, is the name of a 19th-century Norwegian Utopian society that failed.

See it through Jan. 3 at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, NYC. For discounted tickets that support Masterwork Productions, click here.

Christians might also like to know:
• The show posts a Mature rating
• Lord’s name taken in vain
• Language

No comments:
Create A Buzz About Your Book
Custom Search
Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

All Posts on this Blog