Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., May 4, 2001
Oleanna: In a Nightmare Duet
through May 12
Running Time: 1 hr, 25 min
Two people stand across a desk from each other, their bodies straining forward, heat in their faces. They are speaking to each other, but their words seem to be flying past each other's ears. This one's attempts to mollify the other only succeed in inflaming that person. That one's conversational retreats are interpreted as attacks. Their dialogue intensifies, the exchanges coming more and more quickly, in incomplete, jagged phrases that fly from their mouths like spears, until both of them, their faces lined with fury, are railing simultaneously. As Strother Martin put it so memorably in the film Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate."
Watching actors Travis Dean and Amy Hopper engage in this bitter confrontation during the Disciples of Melpomene production of Oleanna brings home again the terrible difficulty we humans have in understanding each other and making ourselves understood. That sometimes tragic frailty in our makeup is at the heart of Mamet's 1992 "he said, she said" drama in which a seemingly innocuous office encounter between a college professor and a student flares into a war of words and wills between the two when the student charges the professor with sexual misconduct.
Seeing Oleanna now, 10 years after its premiere, the play seems less about sexual harassment than it did in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings and Tailhook incident. Perhaps it's being numbed by a decade's worth of progressively more provocative sex scandals -- thank you, Mr. President -- or perhaps it's simply a case of multiple viewings uncovering broader themes, but Oleanna today comes across more as a parable about the tragedy of failing to listen. Then again, perhaps it has to do with director Marshall Ryan Maresca's straightforward presentation of the play. He doesn't try anything fancy or experimental; he simply sets two capable actors on opposite sides of a desk and lets them work through Mamet's painful series of misunderstandings and abuses of power.
For the most part, the actors capture the peculiar rhythm of Mamet's text, their explications and accusations and justifications tumbling out in a cascade of melodic phrases broken by abrupt pauses and turbulent interruptions. It has the feel of two musicians caught in a nightmare duet, struggling to play together, each trying to follow the other's lead but never succeeding. All that comes forth are abbreviated bursts of music, disconnected tunes that go nowhere and build toward nothing but a furious frustration between the two players. There are moments when the actors here lose their grip on the cadence or their sense of pitch and a speech lands flat, but the lapse is never more than momentary and the actors never fall out of character.
For Dean and Hopper, that means they never lose hold of the earnestness that seems to burn inside both of them like an internal flame. Both actors project a sincerity that is untainted and unwavering, which suggests that their characters are acting out of only the purest motivations, genuinely trying to do what they believe is right rather than manipulate the situation for their personal gain. Mamet's script loses some of its moral ambiguity when John and Carol both seem so decent, but it benefits from a sense that the two of them don't want this conflict and would stop it if they could. When the characters periodically try to resolve the matter, though it's always in vain, the heartfelt quality in Dean and Hopper's gestures lets us see that they aren't driven solely by selfishness, that they can see beyond their own desires, and that adds to our sense of their vulnerability. They aren't villains. They're just people who are blind to the fact that they can't hear what someone else is saying, who won't converse with the give-and-take necessary to reach the understanding they claim to want. They're human, with the same human flaw: a failure to communicate.