Macy was ambivalent about the sobriquet and about his career, resigned to never being more than a journeyman stage actor. As film fans now know, he was wrong to doubt himself. But, at the time, he didn’t have any doubts about Oleanna. He thought it was a winner. About that, at least as it’s presented in the revival that opened at the Golden Theatre on Sunday night, he may also be wrong.
Oleanna is divided into three tense scenes in which a male professor and a female student meet in his office. By the end of the production with Macy and Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon in the roles, I wanted desperately to rewind the action to hear again not only what had been said but how it had been said. The play may tend towards the polemical and Mamet's politics may lean towards the right but he is a gifted enough playwright to allow subtext, room for ambiguity. I left the theater shaken, not sure where I stood. And I wasn’t the only one. People who saw it—and even those who didn’t—debated the play for weeks.
Comparing productions is unfair and particularly tricky in this case. Because Mamet wrote Oleanna in the red-hot aftermath of the hearings for Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court that were almost derailed by law professor Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment. People lined up on both sides of that confrontation, the fallout forced the harassment issue into the spotlight and Mamet’s play turned up the heat.
The missteps start with Neil Patel's set. It’s beautiful. Too beautiful. Oleanna (the name seems to refer to a failed 19th century utopian community) opens as the professor is waiting to hear that he’s gotten tenure. But the sleek, wood-paneled set looks as though he’s already working as one of the pampered movie moguls in Mamet’s other gender power play Speed-the-Plow.
The usually deft director Doug Hughes makes matters worse by having mechanized Venetian blinds rise and lower at an agonizingly slow—and noisy—pace to signal scene changes. Couldn’t we have figure out that the scenes were changing on our own? Couldn’t he have found a more clever way to give the actors time to make their minimal costume changes?
But the biggest problem may be the casting. Julia Stiles, who began acting on the professional stage when she was 12, radiates an intelligence and assuredness that has made her one my favorite young movie actresses (click here to read a short New York magazine piece about her). But her character Carol should be insecure at the beginning of the play and Stiles bristles with perspicacity right from the start.
Meanwhile, Bill Pullman brings the same finely-tuned hangdog quality to Oleanna that he brought to Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Problem is it fit the Albee play perfectly, while it subverts the transformation that Mamet’s requires for his.
Some members in the audience at the performance my friend Priscilla and I attended gasped at moments in the climactic third scene. But I kept looking at my watch and wondering where we'd go for dinner. It’s hard to enjoy a contest of any kind when the deck is stacked.