Arts theater review

‘Oleanna’ returns to stir controversy

Professor and student duke it out in David Mamet’s play about power, sexual harassment, and communication

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Johnny Lee Davenport (left) and Obehi Janice (right).
Photo courtesy of Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures

Written by David Mamet
Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue
Mainstage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts
Oct. 14 – Nov. 5, 2017

With the recent sexual assault allegations against public figures such as Harvey Weinstein, the revival of David Mamet’s play Oleanna by the New Repertory Theatre almost seems too well timed. Inspired by Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas and the accompanying public outrage, Oleanna explores the power dynamics between a student and her professor when she accuses him of sexual harassment after a private meeting concerning her grades. While the original Off-Broadway production sparked fierce responses from audiences, this revival disappointingly lacks the intensity expected from a play with such an incendiary reputation.

The play is divided into three acts, each a meeting between the two characters. In the first act, Carol, the student, visits John’s office to inquire about her grades. Distracted by securing tenure and a new house, John incompetently babbles about education, constantly interrupting Carol either to answer the phone or continue his lecturing. Seemingly unaware of his innuendos and his rudeness, John fails to notice Carol’s discomfort. After Act One, Carol, bolstered by her “group,” mounts allegations of sexual harassment, and the two characters engage in cutthroat conversations as they try to assert their power through language in the latter acts.

Johnny Lee Davenport plays as John, the professor, almost as if he was a doddering old fool oblivious of his actions. Davenport’s stumbling fails to convey any ambiguity concerning John’s actions; John is only aggressively ignorant and exhausted instead of aggravatingly smug and debatably exploitative. The result is a slog through Act One, with the audience having to endure John’s rambling pontifications and his cluelessness without suspicion, leaving more tension to be desired. On the other hand, Obehi Janice, acting as Carol, portrays her character’s bewilderment and hurt from John’s actions spectacularly, giving Carol both sympathy and autonomy from her “group” and calling attention to complaints about misogyny concerning Carol. In the latter two acts however, Davenport and Janice truly shine when the drama ramps up alongside Carol’s accusations.

The set design is rather minimalist, being only the desk and two chairs of the office. However, the stage splits and rotates between acts, granting new perspectives that reflect shifts in power. The accompanying warlike music serves as a nice premonition for the battle to emerge. While effective, these design elements do rub off as somewhat heavy-handed, but it is only a minor gripe since they only change between acts.

Despite these complaints about the production, the dialogue in Oleanna, full of Mamet-speak and thematic content, still triumphs. Fundamental to the play are the inability to communicate and subversion through language; John cannot reach through to Carol because he continually asserts his superiority over her with his legal verbiage. On the other hand, Carol finds power in her allegations, as she twists John’s words and decides what the truth is. If anything else, Mamet’s dialogue alone provides a satisfying experience, and this production of Oleanna does a fine job at reproducing Mamet’s words.