By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
There’s something insufferable about the way Blair Baker and David Barlow, who portray the two characters in David Mamet’s Oleanna, come across onstage at Bristol Riverside Theatre — and that is a high compliment.
Each plays an utterly unlikable and illogical person in this drama about power and revenge, and their performances are, in the end, stunning. I write in the end as a caveat: You have to give Oleanna a chance, because Mamet throws monkeywrenches your way.
In fact, the first half of Oleanna (the title of a Norwegian folk song about utopia) is full of them: streams of sentences that end before they reveal a subject; Mamet’s staccato (and here, unreal) dialogue; characters on the edge of ... well, we’re not sure.
Even in its second half, when Mamet spins the tale between professor and student around so that the student has all the power, Oleanna can be as hard to take as its characters: Now, the shy, self-loathing, intimidated, painfully dense student of the first act is aggressive, harsh, fully in charge. Where did she come from?
We first see the sad-sack Carol in the office of her prof, John, a pompous jerk who is fighting on the phone over details about the new house he’s buying because he’s finally getting tenure. He teaches an education class that questions the very values of education and its system, and can speak with a stiff emptiness: “I do not care to posit orthodoxy as a givenhood.”
Carol is desperate about her grade, and in his unseemly way, John offers to help. Though virtually everything he says is ambiguous, there’s no misinterpreting his soothing her when she breaks down over — well, we don’t know because John is continually interrupted by his phone. It’s clear though, that he’s attempting only a gesture of comfort when he pats the tearful Carol's shoulder.
Is he a sexual harasser? That’s what Oleanna considers, plus a lot more: the relationship between powerful, respected people and those not so enfranchised, and between their aspirations and their grasp, and the effect of so-called remedies that may provide some balance. As a play that defines these issues, Oleanna is an unqualified success; as a play that defines itself, not so good. We get extremes and bald contrivance. What is Carol’s real motive? What is her teacher's real sin?
Oleanna seems to ask whether those questions matter in a system of checks and balances that doesn’t work, in this case a tenure committee and a student's right to sway it. So I come back to actors Blair Baker and David Barlow, who under the thoughtful direction of Bristol’s artistic director, Keith Baker, have a tough job: making us understand the issues without being able to make us understand the characters. That they do, on Julia C. Lee’s richly stocked set, and they do it, well, insufferably.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter.
Oleanna: Through Oct. 14 at Bristol Riverside Playhouse, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Tickets: $10-$45. Information: 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.