Dramas Touch on Political Power

David Mamet's play `Oleanna' explores sexual harrassment, Caryl Churchill's `Mad Forest' deals with Romania

OLEANNA Drama written and directed by David Mamet. Produced by Patricia Wolff. Presented by the Back Bay Theater Company. At the Orpheum indefinitely.

`OLEANNA," the searing new play by David Mamet, has two characters: John, a college teacher, and Carol, his student.

Their personalities emerge with crisp precision during the first of the drama's three scenes. John is ambitious, hard-working, and clever enough to sustain his academic career by teaching skepticism toward the academic world. Carol is earnest, desperately unsure of herself, and more intelligent than she realizes.

Their initial encounter - a meeting to discuss his pedagogical ideas and her poor performance in class - is a verbal sparring match in Mr. Mamet's patented style, with enough false starts and dead ends to make one despair of language as a tool for anything but preening, bleating, and retracing the well-worn ruts of institutionalized power.

Only after its intermission does the play take a decisive turn. We discover that several of John's words and actions during his meeting with Carol - an offer of help, a statement of friendliness, a gesture of consolation - appeared to her as acts of sexist aggression, and she considers it a social duty to hold him accountable. The uncertain adolescent has blossomed into an unflinching feminist, holding the professor's dignity and livelihood in her hands. Hostility flares.

Mamet is an ingenious playwright, and if he had wanted to, he could surely have injected some ambiguity into the first-scene encounter to make us wonder if Carol might later be correct about John's alleged "exploitation of asymmetrical power relations," to use a fashionable phrase. It's fascinating that Mamet doesn't allow himself - or his audience - the comfort such ambiguity would have provided. By any reasonable measure, Carol appears wrong about her charges.

So what's going on here? Has one of the most respected American dramatists succumbed to a severe case of male paranoia and set about to manipulate his audience into simplistic patterns of vengeful and reactionary thinking?

Quite the contrary. Early in the play, John suggests to Carol that a teacher's job is not to tell students how to think, but to provoke them into drawing their own conclusions. Mamet clearly sees his own job in similar terms - not to flatter his audience with voguish formulations or time-tested truisms, but to explore the murkiest and most turbulent depths of contemporary discourse, stirring up harsh passions the better to examine their contorted shapes and inescapable complexities.

As in his recent film "Homicide," he is concerned in "Oleanna" with diametrical opposites that are also blood relations: reason and feeling, principle and prejudice, creativity and repression, violence and purgation, all nourishing one another in an endless cycle of interconnection and perpetuation.

This is a tall agenda for a two-hour play with a two-person cast, and Mamet brings it off skillfully, although one wishes he probed his volatile subject in more detail than the drama's minimalist structure allows.

William H. Macy plays John with rich emotion, if not quite as much technical assurance as the role demands, and Rebecca Pidgeon handles the shifting tenor of Carol's personality with great agility.

Mamet's directing is fully in tune with the text of his play, bringing a subtle touch of ritual as certain acts and gestures recur from scene to scene with small but telling changes in mood and meaning.

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