Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in Oleanna
(© Craig Schwartz)
Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in Oleanna
(© Craig Schwartz)
David Mamet's Oleanna is one of those plays that's practically guaranteed to spark heated conversations between theatergoers long after the brief one-hour-and-fifteen-minute play is over. That's certainly the case with Doug Hughes' revival, which has arrived at Broadway's Golden Theatre following a successful run at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. Indeed, stars Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles bring out a number of nuances in the provocative two-hander, which could have audience members switching allegiances at various points in the production.

The play depicts three encounters between university professor John (Pullman) and student Carol (Stiles). What transpires in each scene is fully presented to the audience, and yet John and Carol have two wildly divergent opinions on what actually occurs. Is John simply trying to help out a struggling student -- or is he guilty of sexual harassment?

Structurally, Mamet seems to initially weight the argument in John's favor; since he has the majority of the substantive dialogue in the first scene, we're more likely to view it from his perspective. And yet, when the list of Carol's complaints is read out in the second scene, John's own words and actions are used against him. As Carol states, "You think you can deny that these things happened; or, if they did, if they did, that they meant what you said they meant."

Stiles plays Carol as angry and resentful from the very beginning of the play. In some ways, this feels inappropriate as it doesn't allow the actress much room to build in intensity. However, it's also a bold choice that shows how John misreads Carol from the get-go. In the first scene, he seems completely oblivious to the anger she's clearly feeling, which actually gives more validation to her later claims. Pullman projects an earnestness that is endearing, and the nervous mannerisms he demonstrates multiply as the play progresses and John's life unravels. He is particularly compelling in the final scene as John visibly fights to contain his wrath, and then ultimately gives in to it.

Although the majority of audience members will undoubtedly focus on the gender aspects of this "He Said/She Said" debate, what also comes to the fore in this production are the class dimensions. Carol's most convincing argument is the one in which she critiques the elitism that John has shown by his talk of such things as purchasing a new house and sending his son to a private school. The emotional connection that Stiles establishes as Carol talks about what she's had to overcome just to get to the university is genuinely moving.

On the downside, scenic designer Neil Patel's depiction of John's office is way too grandiose to belong to a university professor (particularly one that doesn't even have tenure). In addition, the blinds on the windows which noisily go up and down between scenes are also perhaps not the best choice to mark the passage of time.

But while the stage environment in which the play takes place is not very convincing, Pullman and Stiles are very much on target.