Grey Area

During my senior year of college, one of my English professors was arrested and charged with the sexual abuse and assault of one his students (who for the record, was a woman in her early 40s). We were all shocked by the allegations, considering the professor was 81 years old at the time, had been partially paralyzed by a stroke and was a well-respected member of our university’s faculty. The professor in question was permanently banned from entering the school campus and denied his retirement benefits. He maintained his innocence, contending that their sexual encounter was entirely consensual and that she was one who instigated their physical relationship. Brought to court, the case was ultimately declared a mistrial based on inconsistent grand jury testimony by the alleged victim, her history of previous sexual accusations which were proven false, and an audiotape made after the arrest in which she admits the relationship was consensual.

I couldn’t help but think about that case while reading about Oleanna in the days leading up to seeing it. It got me thinking about sexual harassment and, to a greater extent sexual abuse and rape charges. Especially when these incidents occur within a stratified environment, such as a university or workplace, where power becomes a factor. Should my professor have embarked on a sexual relationship with one of his students? No. At least, in my opinion – I see it as an abuse of that power. But as is often the case with two sides of the same story, the truth usually lies somewhere in that murky grey area called the middle.

There’s not much to like about either character in David Mamet’s volatile two-hander. John is a pretentious middle-aged professor too preoccupied with his pending tenure approval to focus on his students. Carol is a hypersensitive feminist who comes in search of his help, but ends up leading both down a path from which there is no return. However, likability isn’t in question here, nor is it relevant.

The play itself is slight, clocking in at around 75 minutes. But, oh does it get intense. It was actually my very first experience seeing a David Mamet play. I don’t know how I’ve missed any of his stage or film work, but there you have it. It took me about the first ten minutes to identify and understand the rhythm that is essential to his rapid-fire dialogue. As soon as I got used to it, I was riveted. And then enraged. (Possible spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned).

Oleanna originally premiered in 1992, only a year after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy and it was an incendiary piece of theatre that got people talking and taking sides. Mamet was tackling hot-bed issues such as sexual harassment and political correctness at point blank. Well, the conversation is still happening as evidenced the other evening when I saw the play’s first-ever Broadway production. Director Doug Hughes originally staged this production in Los Angeles with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles to stellar reviews, and it has now transferred to Broadway’s Golden Theatre with its cast intact.

The first scene shows the two characters in his office (which seemed more like a dean’s office than anything I’ve ever seen for a tenuring professor). She is worried about failing his course and is seeking additional help. He’s too preoccupied with the preparations for the new house he and his family are about to move into. One, of course, befitting his new tenure track and accompanying pay raise. Exasperated and desperate, she’s constantly interrupted by the phone calls he receives. He’s not giving her his full attention, which comes across as insensitive and down-right rude. In fact, in her most vulnerable moment, he snubs her for that ever-ringing cell phone and then surprise party in his honor that he’s late for. However, his actions toward her in the scene don’t prepare the audience for the second half, where she becomes the dominant force in their student-teacher relationship, complete with allegations of sexual harassment.

Pullman acquits himself well as the stammering professor whose seemingly innocuous, if insensitive, actions turn out to provoke Carol into action. While some of his earlier lines were inaudible, he gets into a groove with the dialogue and character. Pullman successfully shows his unraveling as the world around him steadily spirals out of control, as Carol’s actions push him to his limits. Stiles, who naturally exudes intelligence and strength (as evidenced in much of her film work), seemed a bit out of place in the first half, but becomes more believable as the play progresses. I hope Stiles, who carries herself well onstage, makes this the first of many appearances on Broadway.

When the lights came up at the end of the play, I felt contempt for Carol. I wondered why she would ruin this man’s career and life by misconstruing their encounters. At most, I felt perhaps he was too open about his family life, but didn’t see physical or verbal evidence to support her allegations. Why did she take the words he said and distort them to use against him? What was her underlying motivation? Was it just a misunderstanding blown out of proportion? His initial actions in the first scene, to me anyway, seemed rather casual. Perhaps he was a bit too forward in disclosing his personal life, but I didn’t see anything that really overstepped the boundary of teacher and student in terms of physical and emotional intent.

Now, Mamet has also stacked the play against Carol, making it more difficult to sympathize with her side of the story, as well as believe her interpretation of the facts. Plus, there’s an incongruity in how she claims ignorance at his phrasing and sentence structure , yet has the ability to construct rather complex, academic statements on her own. Another head-scratcher was Carol’s decision to revisit John’s office after filing her rape charge. It’s goes against what law enforcement officials and legal counsel would advise, plus it’s highly unlikely that anyone would do such a thing without a third party present.

I turned to Sarah to discuss all of these thoughts and ideas and immediately learned her perspective and perception was the exact opposite of mine, but was also completely valid. We saw the same performance, but a different play. And in this case, that’s a good thing.

Even more spirited was the post-show talk back. Every preview has featured special guests from various backgrounds – the night we saw it there were two sexual harassment arbitrators. With the help of a moderator, they offer their perspective, but more importantly the audience has the chance to get voice their opinions. The reactions cover the broadest spectrum imaginable. People were anxious and eager to talk about what they had seen with ideas popping up left and right. Theories abounded that Carol was calculated and manipulative, or that she has borderline personality disorder, or that she was a used by her unseen (presumably) feminist group, to enact a curricular rebellion. When the question was posed as to whether Carol represented modern feminism, there were more than a few woman who jumped out of their seats vociferously answering “No!”

It reminded me of the atmosphere that permeated the Walter Kerr Theatre four years ago after I saw John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (also directed by Hughes) where people were talking about the truth of the situation – who was right, who was wrong. In both plays, you have two lead characters completely at odds with each other over their perception of events. Both plays got audiences talking as the houselights came up, with people taking sides and hashing it out with one another. In Doubt, Shanley offers a level playing field for both Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. His ultimate goal is to put us in that grey area. However, Mamet is being more provocative, daring us to take a side.

At one point in the play, John talks about how we see the world through our own screens. We interpret everything through our own critical lens, which is colored by our life experiences and personal histories. Mamet takes the issues at hand, creates tense situations and uses the ideas to create the onstage dialogue in what is ultimately (if you’ll forgive me for being momentarily Mametian) a dramaturgical mind fuck. There are no right answers. There are no wrong answers. In fact, there is no simple answer for any of the questions raised by the play, just a continuing dialogue of ideas and perspectives.

Oleanna will make you uncomfortable. It should also make you tense, nervous and very likely really angry. It is for these reasons, though, that it should be seen. Be sure to stick around for the talk back; no doubt it will just as interesting (if not more) than the play.

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