What the hell do we do with David Mamet? Some people love him, some people loathe him...for the record, I run hot and cold...I love plays like American Buffalo and Glenngarry Glen Ross and I directed a production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago as my final graduate school project. That production was really the first time I felt like a director, like I had something to offer and I remember it fondly. However, I despise plays like Speed-the-Plow (I saw an up and down production of this play in London at the Old Vic in 2008 with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum. Spacey was BRILLIANT, Goldblum was Goldblum...I kept waiting for him to say "Must go faster, must go faster", somewhere Sanford Meisner rolls over in his grave) and I will admit I think Oleanna is kinda sorta piece of shit...
One of my basic rules for any sort of dramatic event, be it film, TV, the theatre, what have you, is I gotta give a damn about SOMEBODY for me to care about the events unfolding in front of me. That's not the case in Oleanna, as we have Professor Obtuse and Student Idiot debating some sort of class on something at the University of Dumbass...I bet their basketball team is good though!
Here's a short summary of the story:
A male college professor and his female student sit down to discuss her grades and in a terrifyingly short time become the participants in a modern reprise of the Inquisition. Innocuous remarks suddenly turn damning. Socratic dialogue gives way to heated assault. And the relationship between a somewhat fatuous teacher and his seemingly hapless student (who appears to be a borderline retard in Act 1) turns in to a fiendishly accurate (no it doesn't) X ray of the mechanisms of power, censorship and abuse...and he beats her up at the end, hope I didn't ruin it for you...
I gather this play made a bit of a splash in 1992, when it was first produced against the backdrop of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill soap opera of 1991, but as bad as those two came off in their various dances of death, they at least appeared to be operating somewhat NEAR a human level...Mamet's two characters in Oleanna seem about as human as Jeff Bridges' character in that old flick Starman, or maybe closer to Vincent D'onofrio's bug in Men In Black...I mean, they sort of look human...they kinda of talk human (and I know everyone always talks about Mamet's hyper-realistic, highly stylized language but in Oleanna it doesn't work at all), but they do not approximate any real human traits. Just the stupidity of meeting alone after the first meeting should drown the play in implausibility...
Some examples of these two trying to communicate:
Carol: You don't do that.
Carol: You don't do...
John: ...I don't, what...?
John: ...I don't for...
John: ...forget things? Everybody does that.
Carol: No, they don't.
John: They don't...
John: (Pause) No. Everybody does that.
Carol: Why would they do that...?
John: Because. I don't know. Because it doesn't interest them.
John: I think so, though. (Pause) I'm sorry I was distracted.
Carol: You don't have to say that to me.
John: You paid me the compliment, or the "obeisance" -- all right-- of coming in here...All right. Carol. I find that I am at a standstill. I find that I...
John: ...one moment. In regard to your...to your...
Carol: Oh, oh. You're buying a new house!
John: No, let's get on with it.
Carol: "get on"? (Pause)
Rick throws his hands up in frustration and makes an Eddie Izzard face!!
So John is up for tenure, he's trying to close on a house and his wife and lawyer keep calling because something is going wrong with the house, he has either the biggest moron in the history of college students or one of the most conniving individuals in the history of dramatic literature (dare we call Carol a Machiavel) sitting right in front of him and they all babble on for 3 (thankfully short) scenes.
So, what's the point of Oleanna...here I turn to one of my favorite critics:
From the BRIALLIANT John Heilpern, in his wonderful collection of reviews perfectly titled How Good Is David Mamet, Anyway?:
In a perverse way, he brings out the worst in us. Perhaps, as I did, you found yourselves wishing to kill the sexually harassed victim in Oleanna. "There you are!" Mr Mamet's admirers said at the time. "You're no better than the average male chauvinist pig." The playwright had therefore made his subversive dramatic point: if you sided with the male hero -- the professor who happened to be innocent --- you were no better than an abuser (or were smugly indifferent about important issues). But Mr Mamet had so loaded the dice against the vicious -- and deranged -- victim of Oleanna that nausea was the only response to her, and to the playwright's heavy-handed manipulation."
That is primarily my complaint with Oleanna is that I am being manipulated as a reader (and, if the film version starring the original cast members William H Macy and the stunningly untalented Rebecca Pidgeon, who singlehandedly disproves all of Mamet's acting theories prove, as a viewer as well). Mamet's characters ARE NOT CHARACTERS in any normal sense of the word. They are simply vessels for him to spout his preposterous ideas about academia...
But, I say again, what the hell do we do with the enigma of David Mamet...? Like Bertolt Brecht, he is part theorist, part director and part playwright...I believe his main treatise on acting, True and False is mostly GIGANTICALLY false, but at the same time, it is clear he dearly loves and admires actors, even if he does not understand or refuses to understand, the process by which actors craft their performances...What about his plays? Will we still be seeing them, studying them in 50 years, 100 years? How does he rate on that mythical list of GREAT AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT...
So I will wrap today's post up with my first ever GREAT AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT FANTASY DRAFT...1 Round draft, 10 picks, you get all of their work, good, bad or indifferent...(for the record, I think you can play fantasy anything, it is one of my passions...my fantasy baseball team currently has a 7 point lead heading into the final month of the season, and if my guys can stay healthy, take it one day at a time and hope for the best, good Lord willing, things will work themselves out, yes wonderful sports cliches, even in my blog)...I ask this question a lot, if we opened it up to all playwrights, Shakespeare is kinda Albert Pulojs and LeBron James all rolled into one right? I mean, who gets picked ahead of Will...so the intriguing question there is always who is the #2 pick in the draft, the Kobe Bryant, Hanley Ramirez pick...for me it's Ibsen, but that's just me...thanks for reading this tangent...
Any, back to THE GREAT AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT FANTASY DRAFT, Round 1:
1. Arthur Miller
2. Tennessee Williams
3. August Wilson
4. Eugene O'Neill (whom I loathe)
That's the pantheon...those guys are the best of the best in terms of influence, work created, legacy etc.
5. David Mamet
6. Tony Kushner
7. Sam Shepard (whom I loathe too, sorry Sam, I"ll leave you alone if I run into you in a bar again)
8. William Inge
9. Thorton Wilder
10. Wendy Wasserstein
That's my top ten, how about you?
Anyhow, thanks for reading, feel free to disagree with me about Oleanna, I'd love to hear some thoughts and thanks for the feedback from those of you who commented.
BTW, I think this blog is destined to happen. I finally got some money today, so I am getting my car that has been dead since June fixed. I was cleaning it out waiting for the tow truck to come and in my back seat was a copy of Tom Stoppard's translation of Vaclav Havel's Largo Desolato, one of the 127 I gotta read and one of the few I didn't know prior to looking at the list...well, how the hell did that script end up in the backseat of my car that hasn't moved since June? As Mr Henslowe says, in the Stoppard co-scripted Shakespeare in Love, "I don't know, it's a mystery."
So, Vaclav Havel's Largo Desolato is on deck.
Stay tuned, I hope you come back, and if you don't, to quote Mr Mamet, "...fuck..."
Rick St. Peter
September 1, 2009