Theater Review: Dallas Actor’s Lab Cast Upstages David Mamet’s Words in Oleanna

Rating

A

Location

The Green Zone 161 Riveredge Dr Dallas, TX 75207 Buy Tickets

Dates

July 28 thru Aug 14

As Dallas Actor’s Lab’s inaugural production, the choice of David Mamet’s cryptically named Oleanna walks a neat line between calculating and inspired. This is a writer who, supposedly, takes no prisoners, and the major conceit of the play is that the words — often a rapid-fire volley of half-formed thoughts and sentences — speak for themselves.

But this incarnation, directed by James Mackenzie, is carefully paced for a slow burn. Though the audience creates a cage around the single set, we’re watching a haphazard ambush rather than a fair fight. We meet John (Kyle Lemieux, the Lab’s founder and artistic director), a university professor, and Carol (Natalie Young), his student, in his office, which is where we stay over the course of three short acts.

John’s desk is a messy pile of books and papers, the sure sign of a cluttered, important mind. He’s on the phone with his wife, yakking about the bit of real estate they’re purchasing in the wake of his tenure announcement (it’s not quite in the bag because nothing’s been signed, but he’s golden). Carol, clutching her ever-present notepad, is practically melting into her chair. Young, hollow-eyed, is the picture of a confused, exhausted co-ed on the verge of politely excusing herself because she’d rather go have a root canal.

When John hangs up the phone, however, it’s clear why she’s come: she’s failing his class, and needs a passing grade. The problem? She doesn’t understand a word of what he says. “What is a ‘term of art?’” she asks him immediately, flipping through her notes, quoting his own words back to him. She takes notes, you see, she does everything right to try and keep up, she bought his book and read it. Nothing makes sense, and she’s worked so hard and overcome so much to get to college anyway (she makes mention of her socio-economic status). Take pity, teach, huh?

At first he’s in a hurry, talking circles around her and suggesting that perhaps the course is too difficult. But when her stuttering desperation gives way to an explosive speech about how stupid she believes she is, she reaches him. Or more accurately, she reaches the teacher in him. Lemieux’s professor, though certainly pompous and more than a little aware of his own intelligence, reads essentially earnest and sincere in his desire to not only impart knowledge, but to help a student succeed. Of course, his vanity (unintentionally, it seems) gets in the way, and they never quite get down to brass tacks about her grade. Instead, he weaves a rambling, pedantic “when I was your age” sort of tale that obviously only frustrates Carol further.

From the beginning, John and Carol are in a compromising position, one that might even reek of sex under different circumstances. But these are really ideologies speaking, not people, though the talented actors do their best to convince us otherwise. John and Carol talk at each other with only a self-serving pretense at listening and understanding, perhaps an echo of American party politics, perhaps an indictment of the way the different sexes might interpret the same events.

But now, so long after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings on which the play is clearly based, it seems impossible to imagine that anyone ever thought Carol was in the right. As a student, she’s clearly ill-prepared for the course, and certainly a professor shouldn’t change a student’s grade just because that student is upset about it. And yes, plenty of university professors are on a tenure-track power trip. But teachers, like writers, would find the job impossible without at least some measure of ego. Mamet knows this full well.

By the time the lights come up on the second act and we tumble to the fact that Carol has filed a written complaint with the tenure committee accusing John of paternalism, sexism, and seemingly every other -ism under the sun, I’m already on his side. He might be a clueless academic with his head in the sand, but Young plays Carol like an obliviously sensual snake in the grass. Her deadpan, disbelieving delivery accounts for most of the laughs, uncomfortable or otherwise. The push and pull rhythm of Mamet-speak is there, like the intermittent nervous tapping of a pencil against a desk, but doesn’t ever take center stage. The words aren’t the thing — the actors are. A bold thing to do, with a Mamet play, and the risk pays off in the sense that walking out to my car, I had a clear idea of what just happened and where I stood.

And as much as I occasionally find the playwright a bit much to take, Oleanna sets the tone for the kind of theater the Lab seems interested in producing. There is something worthwhile and pleasurable about watching actors Lemieux and Young tussle with (and triumph over) a difficult text without any trappings. When Carol drops the bomb about the full extent of her complaint, she overplays her hand. She’s manic and borderline disturbed, but perhaps most importantly, a poorly-drawn puppet for a will much stronger and smarter than her own. The intense finale, exponentially amplified by the intimate, close setting of Project X’s Green Zone, is simply just deserts.

Photo by: James Mackenzie

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