Watching the first scene of Oleanna, David Mamet's provocative play about the interaction of college professor John (Kyle Lemieux) and Carol (Natalie Young), a girl failing his course, the play's outcome seems crazy. And director James Mackenzie keeps us spirally forward for 85 minutes to the psycho-thriller ending in the Dallas Actor's Lab production, the first show for this new company.
When the first scene opens, John's a bit pressed already. He's up for tenure and almost out his office door to sign a contract on a house. But he's touched by the drop-in student's pleading declaration that she's read his book, takes notes in class, but still doesn't get it. He calms his histrionic visitor and promptly unloads his entire theory of why higher education is mostly a worthless ritual of test taking. (The obscure title of the play refers to a folk tale about Ole and Anna who swindled poor farmers out of their life savings by selling them worthless swampland, then disappeared. Mamet suggests college is such a swindle.)
"I like you," John tells Carol, as he explains his ethical obligation to make her think for herself—and why her badly written paper needs work. She doesn't fall asleep, but grimly scribbles away on her notepad.
In the next scene, some days later, Carol's back in his office with a new jacket and personality. John is incredulous to learn that Carol has filed a detailed protest with the tenure committee accusing him of sexual harassment. Oh—and also elitism and paternalism. When John talks of intent and context, Carol points to the actual "facts."
Yes, there's a semantic problem here. But maybe Carol's initial poor student act was a deliberate ruse for gaining power. What happened to the vulnerable and confused waif desperately trying to avoid a failing grade, her lower lip quivering and struggling with words over three syllables? She speaks of a support group, but this core change is more than a political makeover. Has Carol found her inner bitch? Suddenly she possesses the fiery eloquence of a courtroom lawyer, in-your-face body language and is clearly enjoying her new weapons of mass character destruction. Anger liberation time, c'mon!
Lemieux's professor is a little smug but painfully sincere. He smiles with pride as he brags about his anti-establishment stance, and sees no irony in seeking tenure from that very establishment. Also the new company's artistic director and chair of drama at the University of Dallas, Lemieux makes the professor's political ignorance a kind of innocence. He nods and squints painfully as the true nature of Carol's mission gradually dawns on him. His frenzied transformation at the end feels as inevitable as a werewolf's shape-shifting under a full moon.
Young's performance gives coherence to Carol's changing persona. Fine-boned and with a quiet ferocity, she was most recently seen in Second Thought Theatre's visceral production of Red Light Winter. Head down and eyes half-open, Young initially looks like any sleepless student making a last-ditch plea to avoid an F. She appears chastised at the end of the first scene, but when she reappears her victim grimace has become the victor's contemptuous smile. Young's Carol is both vulnerable and ruthless, two qualities that ignite the explosive finale.
First produced in 1992 following the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, the two-character play vividly dramatizes the enormous interpretations available in the simplest of language, and most innocent of gestures. Right, so why risk it? Everybody with a job anywhere has required training on what can be considered sexual harassment. As a college teacher myself, I can't imagine the opening scene taking place anywhere but the dean's office.
That said, Mamet remains a master of the power struggle that starts out with people talking, and everybody struggling to wrangle some meaning out of the tirade. But where language fails, as all diplomats fear, war begins.