The hazard in taking in David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” now playing at Bristol Riverside Theater, is assuming that you know what you’re going to get; it’s a two-hander, a series of heated dialogues between a professor and his female student. And the beauty of this play is that it cascades through ideas and reversals like a snowball down a mountain, eventually triggering and assailing the audience with an avalanche of shocking questions and stolen moments.
Make no mistake, despite being almost two decades old, “Oleanna” is a dangerous work of theater, and while it simmers for its first 40 minutes or so, that slow-burn rewards the audience with tremendous payoff.
Inspired by 1991 sexual harassment accusations weighed against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas by colleague Anita Hill, “Oleanna” brings that same discussion to an unnamed prestigious university. There Carol (Blair Baker) comes to her professor, John (David Barlow), to express her frustration at being unable to comprehend his course materials. Of particular concern is a book written by John himself about the paradigms and pitfalls of modern education. In it in he decries the current system of higher-ed as “systematic hazing.”
Carol is confused; after all, this isn’t how she thought a college was supposed to work. In response, John shares his own struggles with education in his youth, his love of theatricality in the classroom, and how he “likes” Carol for her attitude and thinking. He then offers her private tutelage, for which she’ll earn an A in his class, and puts his hand on her shoulder.
As Carol begins to warm to John, she eventually offers up a secret, something she’s never told anybody, but a phone call interrupts the moment, leaving the secret unsaid. John, we learn, has been granted tenure and substantial raise, and his wife is in closing negotiations for a new house to match the new income. With this offer comes an attitude of mild invincibility, a nonchalant way of gliding through the entire conversation with a sense of inauthentic paternal concern. It’s a subtle act of hubris that will cost him dearly.
All of this exposition is served up in the play’s bulky and wordy first act; it’s more than a bit plodding, but, boy, does it ever explode in satisfying ways in the last two-thirds of “Oleanna.”
Carol rolls her experiences in John’s office into a formal complaint, submitted to the tenure committee. Her action raises the question — for us and for John — of exactly how benign John’s intentions are, and whether or not the very fabric of John’s educational ideals are part of a system of sexist, class-based subjugation.
What John perceived as innocuous, good-natured professorship is presented by Carol as pejorative and ill-willed acts of pomposity designed to fuel John’s ego instead of the minds of his students. And she might just have a point.
John spends the second act running scared, as “Oleanna” transforms into a chess game of gender warfare and class structure, a game that questions how safe anyone is within the ivory tower of collegiate studies.
In the play a forceful touch turns to accusations of sexual assault, and the play’s final act is a nuclear weapon of blackmail, persuasion, veiled threats, and blunt-force confrontation that left the audience arguing violently with one another as they left the theater. That’s the potency of “Oleanna” — by the end, you find yourself firmly sided with either Carol or John, and the play has transformed into the Gaza Strip with each and every one of us uncompromisingly on one side of the divide.
John Baker’s direction ably paces the play’s final two acts, with one potential misstep in the deliberate tempo of act one. As mentioned, there’s a lot of information dropped in the audience’s lap, and the evening’s one intermission follows immediately afterward. It’s an act without a hook, and it’s probably why “Oleanna” is often presented without any form of intermission.
In the lobby, between acts, I found myself amidst head-scratching theatergoers, trying to figure out if they were intrigued by what they’d seen or a little bit lost. That makes me a bit sad, because the final two acts prove well worth the time, especially since it features two actors working brilliantly — although the slowness of the first act and the misplaced intermission does them no favors.
Also of special note is Julia C. Lee’s breathtaking set, full of books and character and lived-in, fully formed beauty. The world of “Oleanna” has an authentic, three-dimensional life, and it’s because John’s office is so well-realized. It’s everything a set design for a show like this should be: useful, clean, complete, and an excellent arena for battles that walk the three-fold edge of ideological, emotional, and physical.
Ultimately, “Oleanna” is a powerful piece of theater that reinvigorates conversations about sex and power, discussions we may have all thought long resolved. Those who brave the informational load of act one will have their patience rewarded, and then some, by the final bows.
Oleanna, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Through Sunday, October 14. $35-42. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.