by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & avid Mamet's recent pronouncement that he is "no longer a brain-dead liberal" clarifies the imbalance in his 1992 drama about political correctness, Oleanna. Sixteen years ago, the patriarchal professor seemed more condescending, his cowering student more justified in her accusations of sexual harassment. But now it's clear where the play's sympathies lie: It portrays the professor as well-intentioned victim, the student as vengeful harpy.
Unlike the genuine moral quandary that a good production of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt engenders (did he really do it? is she actually wrong?), Mamet's Oleanna shows its hand. If Carol comes to resent the patriarchal system of teacher-experts so much that she convinces herself it's best to participate in the dismantling of John the professor's life, then she is a monster of political correctness run amok. By tilting his sympathies one way, Mamet loses the chance to steer his play into debatable ambiguity.
In the second act, unexpectedly, the stakes are raised, the teacher/student power positions reversed. And Interplayers' production (through May 18) is solid enough to convey the startling power of Mamet's script.
As the professor, John Henry Whitaker comforts his student in a way that illustrates both the strength and weakness of his performance. Sitting on the love seat in his faculty office where he has just gotten uncomfortably close to Carol and her insecurity, Whitaker extends his arms toward her while remaining seated across the room. He can express compassion, all right, but he's not really going to commit to the idea.
There's a glimmer of payoff -- as the p.c. charges mount up against him, Whitaker's slow burn of resentment becomes seething and unsettling -- but his affect remains monotonous, non-committal. Whitaker doesn't show enough contempt about that tenure committee, but he succeeds in conveying John's teaching instincts: He wants to teach, but he doesn't know how to talk to his student; she wants to learn but lacks self-confidence. Both are trapped.
As Carol, Piper Gunnarson has the intensity that Whitaker lacks, imbalancing the play. Gunnarson makes her character's transitions believable, from hyper-self-critical mouse to hypercritical mouthpiece of radical feminism. In the first act, her big eyes, long face, crumpled body language and evident sense of exasperation combine to depict a student with such low self-regard that she can't imagine herself learning anything. In the early going, with her fists balled up in frustration and self-contempt, she calls herself "bad" and "stupid" -- and it's pitiable until you see her steely-eyed determination later to throw those same insults at her would-be teacher. Mamet may have written Carol as a villainess, but Gunnarson does much to weld the mousy/radical halves of her character.
Karen Kalensky directs with energy, keeping the tempo quick and the speech interruptions staccato: She has Carol sidle up to the professor's chair, without hitting too hard at the symbolism of a power-grab. And Janna Creswell's costumes help trace the play's reversals: from tweedy to dapper to disheveled for the prof, from sloppy-casual to mannish-severe for the student. Too bad, then, that there's an imbalance in both the script and this production of Oleanna.