Broadway, Play, Drama

Location: The Golden Theater

David Mamet is known for writing great character conflict and sharp, biting dialogue. His plays (Speed-the-Plow, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross) generally show uncomfortable situations through which his characters must navigate using whatever tools necessary to achieve their final goals. And sometimes that means head to head combat, verbal and otherwise. Oleanna, his newest Broadway offering, exemplifies his MO and proves, yet again, why Mamet is one of the most prolific playwrights out there today.

Although Oleanna is not a new play (it was written in the early 1990’s), this production marks its Broadway debut. With a Hollywood cast comprised of Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman, the show arrives in New York after a run in Los Angeles. Stiles and Pullman are well-suited for their roles and prove their stage credibility. Oleanna is a two character show-down of sorts, and both actors power through their respective roles. Pullman is a genius, giving the slightly quirky everyman quality with a sympathetic yet slightly suspicious undertone. Stiles is surprisingly able in her role. Her career blossomed as she played one angsty teenager after another in a barrage of cheesy teen flicks and as a result she tends to stick in one’s mind that way. I imagine that will change soon, though, as she certainly has the chops for more mature roles. Also, Stiles is easy to watch on stage. Unlike many screen actors who make the transfer to stage and can’t seem to adjust physically, Stiles seems comfortable and confident.

Oleanna tells the story of John (Pullman), a college professor on the verge of tenure and his frustrated student Carol (Styles). Carol confronts John in his office after he gives her a bad grade on a paper; she admits that the material he teaches is confusing and vague and she berates him for not appreciating that the students at the university want to succeed and his class is a hindrance. It seems as though John’s pretention and disdain for the traditional educational structure are exacerbated by the fact that he just wants job security and a good income to provide for his family and that maybe he doesn’t even like teaching. The conflict escalates when Carol accuses John of sexual harassment and his job hangs in the balance. The power struggle shifts and the audience’s loyalties begin to adapt as well.

The captivating moments in Oleanna occur as the conflict builds. Through the conversation (it’s really more of an argument, let’s be honest), the characters’ true colors are unveiled and what the audience once believed to be fact is unwound so the truth can be further exposed. Although then, in true Mamet fashion, the plot takes another unexpected turn. The audience is engaged as they actively hear the characters’ sides and form their own opinions (and then maybe form new opinions as more information is made clear). Oleanna utilizes my favorite storytelling technique: what I like to call the theatrical mindfuck. Although it doesn’t totally manipulate the audience, the plot develops in such a way that you never really know what to expect next…and that’s the fun of it…you intellectualize the play as the story is told.

Oleanna starts slowly, but then builds at a tremendous pace. The first half hour is all exposition and since the audience is merely acquainting themselves with the characters, there is a lot of set-up before the confrontation becomes anything substantial. But then the following hour flies with intensity; seriously, the tension is palpable. So don’t despair if you feel like you’ve been misled – hang in there and pay attention, the pay off is yet to come.

If you like engaging theatre that sparks debates and conversation well after the curtain has fallen, you should definitely check out Oleanna. For a handful of preview performances, talkbacks have been offered after the show with attorneys and other professionals to discuss the ramifications of the play if it were to really happen. The talkback I saw stimulated an amazing response from the audience. Legal issues were discussed as well as plot points in general; it seemed like everyone had something to say.

I will caution that if you prefer your live entertainment to be on the light side of things, Oleanna might not be your best Broadway bet. Mamet is verbose and the dialogue is frequently heavy and not terribly easy to digest. It’s not challenging in an overly sophisticated way, but you do have to pay attention. But man, if you are looking for a captivating night of theatre that could spark a mean debate afterward, see Oleanna.

(Oleanna plays at the Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. For more show info visit

(Tickets are $76.50-$111.50. To purchase tickets visit or call 212.239.6200. For 40% off tickets, visit and use discount code OLMKT93.)