THEATER : The Storm Over ‘Oleanna’ : When David Mamet and William H. Macy tried to tell the Taper how to cast Mamet’s play about sexual harassment, a whole new controversy broke

<i> Richard Stayton is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

The shocked professor pleads for an explanation.

“What does this mean?”

The equally shocked student whispers, “I thought you knew.”

“What?” The professor is almost begging. “What does it mean?”

Suddenly the office sways as if anticipating her response. The student hesitates, maintaining her balance until the aftershock ends. At last she answers her instructor: “You tried to rape me. . . .”

Lionel Mark Smith steps from behind his desk to confront Kyra Sedgwick, but is interrupted again, this time by their director. “Let’s drill it one more time,” William H. Macy commands. “Be right on top of her--I mean, on top of her lines. Be. . . .”

Another tremor shakes the office set. The director and his cast pause while the stage lights tremble.

The earthquake’s aftershock ends and for the moment the ground beneath West Hollywood’s Tiffany Theater is still. But cultural shocks may well resume with this Friday’s Los Angeles premiere of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” the first of two productions of the show to hit the Southland this spring.


Mamet’s deceptively spare two-character drama about political correctness and sexual harassment on a college campus is the most controversial American play of the 1990s. Wherever it’s been staged--Boston, New York, London, Johannesburg, Stockholm--"Oleanna” has provoked women’s organizations, academics, columnists and critics into outraged hyperbole. It’s no accident that the play’s poster is a circular target with a bull’s-eye.

New York Newsday writer Jan Stuart pronounced it “loathsome and riveting.” Time magazine’s William A. Henry III declared it “reason enough to cheer for the future of the theater.” The Village Voice experienced a radical shift when its lead drama critic Michael Feingold judged “Oleanna” to be “cunning . . . a tragedy built as a series of audience traps. . . ,” while its columnist Alisa Solomon condemned the play as “twisted . . . meant to provoke feminists who insist on calling (Mamet’s) work misogynist.”

But now add the specter of racism to the charges of sexism. In Los Angeles, controversy erupted before the play even opened. Members of the “Mamet Mafia"--fiercely loyal actors who have worked with the prolific Mamet for decades--took on the Taper when officials there refused to cast Smith in the role of the professor.

The Mark Taper Forum has never staged a Mamet play and isn’t likely to anytime soon after the backstage battle over “Oleanna.” Notorious for being bluntly outspoken and uncompromising, Mamet took an interest in this production because it is the first to be done in Southern California (San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre will present a different production May 19-June 26).

Mamet, who won a Pulitzer in 1984 for “Glengarry Glen Ross,” used his muscle to insist on Smith, one of his regular team, in part, because Smith lives in Los Angeles. The Taper balked, saying they were not comfortable with the actor’s work. The actor thinks the decision came because he is black, and he believes the Taper was uncomfortable casting a black man in a role where he would be accused of sexual harassment. The Taper denies race had anything to do with their decision.

Loyalty is the bottom line for Mamet--he and Macy held firm. Instead of the originally scheduled “Oleanna,” the Taper’s 1994 season opened with Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden.” And Macy, instead of guiding his cast in a prestigious 750-seat theater, is now standing in the 99-seat Tiffany.

How did this happen?

From the start, Mamet took a strong hand in the creation of the Los Angeles premiere production of “Oleanna,” and up to a point, the Taper cooperated. Last fall, when the Mark Taper Forum selected “Oleanna” as its season debut offering, Mamet insisted that his close friend Macy direct. No problem. Taper producing director Robert Egan stepped aside. But then the Mamet-Macy team decided to cast Smith, a Los Angeles-based actor they had worked with since 1974.

The script’s sole character description of the professor, known only as John, is “a man in his 40s.” But it was Macy--a 43-year-old white male--who created the role under Mamet’s direction for its 1992 world premiere in Boston, then took it to New York. In Mamet’s text, the professor pontificates about “the white man’s burden.”

Macy’s working relationship with Mamet stretches over 20 years and approximately 40 plays and movies, including co-starring with Joe Mantegna in Mamet’s last feature, “Homicide.” Remembering the decision-making process, Macy mimicked his conversation with Mamet, their terse, shorthand conversation.

Macy: “Is it Lonnie (Smith)?”

Mamet: “Yeah. What do you think?”

Macy: “Yeah. Is it Lonnie or nothing?”

Mamet: “Yeah, why not?”

Why not? Already controversial as written, by casting Smith, Macy recognized that he and Mamet had upped the ante, adding racial issues to the polemical tale of an educator refuting charges of sexual harassment.

Macy admits he hesitated initially. No rookie director, the longtime Mamet protege directed the hit 1988 Lincoln Center premiere of Howard Korder’s “Boys’ Life,” as well as numerous Mamet plays. Macy shared his doubts about Smith with Mamet. Mamet replied, “It’s not going to make any difference, and what difference it does make is going to be delicious and wonderful.”

In the play, Macy found support. After delivering his “white man’s burden” lecture, the professor is challenged by his student, an emerging feminist. “What has brought you to this place?” asks the young woman. “Not your sex. Not your race. Not your class. Your actions!”

But if a black man and a white woman are alone in a small office, wouldn’t the subject of race be inevitable? Macy observed himself thinking such thoughts while considering Smith for the role. “What incredible racist issues I have, unbeknownst to me,” he realized. “For instance, I said to myself, ‘You get a black man and a white girl on stage, can they talk about something besides race?’ What a ridiculous notion! I also said to myself, ‘But their speech patterns are so white in the text.’ And that’s a horribly racist, ridiculous thing to say.”

Smith, who still believes race kept him from playing the part at the Taper, couldn’t believe he had been chosen from the first.

“I’m like everybody else in America,” says Smith, who’s worked in five Mamet stage productions, one television production and in three Mamet movies. “I’m conditioned to de facto segregation and racism. I never thought David and Bill would cast me as a college teacher.”

And so the task fell to Macy to inform Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson and Egan that “it’s Lonnie or nothing.”

“I did all the talking,” Macy recalled. “But Dave was the muscle behind it.”

Egan remembers the negotiation process. “I don’t know this actor,” Egan said of Smith. “I’ve never even met this actor. There’s no way I can commit to an actor I have absolutely no knowledge of in a two-character play in a 750-seat theater for 64 performances. And the way we agreed for me to become familiar with this actor was a reading, where we’d read the play from beginning to end.”

Macy was not happy about the Taper’s request for a reading. “This is all over, guys,” he remembers telling Davidson and Egan. “What you want to do is test him. He won’t pass the test.”

“They prejudged us,” Smith felt. “It was cold in that Taper room, and I knew in a moment this was an audition, not a reading. Afterward, Gordon said, ‘So, you live here now?’ I said, yeah, since 1978--don’t you remember me in your workshop?’ I decided to use Gordon as part of my character study for the professor.”

After the Taper’s reading, Egan told Macy, “We can do better.”

“I know you can,” Macy responded.

“They could have done better than Lonnie,” Macy explains. “They could have gotten a better director, a better actress, a better designer. And when they got their best team, I could have done better than that. I could have bested them. If you’re going to play that game, it never ends. Some directors and producers feel that what the process is all about is to keep auditioning until that perfect guy or the perfect woman walks in. It ain’t gonna happen. They’re waiting for the character to walk in so they don’t have to direct.”

Smith still believes the Taper’s decision was racist.

Egan denies this. “Any actor who hears they’re not strong enough to carry a stage (like the Taper’s),” Egan says, “is going to have some enormous armor that goes up in defense of why they were not chosen. In Lonnie’s case, he brought up the issue of race. That is so ludicrous to accuse Gordon of racist tendencies.”

Macy agrees with Egan.

“I don’t think racism is an issue in the play,” says Macy. “And I don’t think it was an issue with the Taper.”

But Egan disagrees with Macy’s contention that “Oleanna” is not affected by the casting of an African American. “There’s no doubt about it,” Egan insists, “the dynamics of the play are affected when you bring the issue of race into it. Race is real. And if you have a young white girl lecturing a black man about his privileges, that becomes a real issue.”

“Yeah, my casting bends the play,” Smith adds sarcastically. “All casting bends a play.”

Macy admits he would “dearly love” to work at the Taper, Southern California’s most visible theater. And Mamet lost money, too, including box-office royalties at the Taper, which will be significantly less at the tiny Tiffany. He also returned a $25,000 grant for the production of another play at the Taper, plus he sacrificed a much higher theatrical profile in Hollywood’s film community. This last may be the most crucial since Mamet is shopping an “Oleanna” film script that he hopes to direct, and many studio executives use the Taper as their sole theater experience in Los Angeles. Macy knows that if Mamet directs the film version, he’ll likely again portray the professor.

But Macy also knows Mamet’s principles. “David was my first teacher and really my only teacher,” Macy says of their first meeting in 1971 in a drama class at Goddard College in Vermont. “This play’s professor talks about education and how rotten it is, and I had tons of rotten teachers, with the exception of Dave. He was a defining moment in my life. He truly gave me my entire aesthetic. I ain’t proud. I’ll admit it.”

“The day I stopped being Billy’s teacher,” Mamet says, “it was like we were going out to the Klondike together.” Along with another Mamet student (director-writer Steven Schachter), they formed the St. Nicholas Theater Company in 1971. Macy starred in Mamet’s first successful plays, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “American Buffalo.” For more than two decades, Macy has remained Mamet’s actor and partner in writing, directing, producing, teaching, and poker. Although Macy keeps an apartment in Los Angeles to maintain his frequent television and movie acting work, his permanent home is in rural Vermont, less than a 20-minute drive from Mamet’s house.

“Billy can almost read my mind,” Mamet says. Mamet dedicated his 1975 play, “The Poet and the Rent,” to Macy, adding: " . . . In the hopes he and I may continue to be aware of what the other is thinking.”

Since 1991, when Macy first received a much longer version of “Oleanna” from Mamet, the production has been “pretty much all friends and family.” He worked opposite Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, in the world premiere. When cast changes had to be made, Mamet chose friends as the replacements.

“I tried to stick in the same vein (for the L.A. production),” Macy says. “Lonnie’s an old and dear friend, and that’s why we were just convinced he’s the guy to do it. . . . I first saw him do this wonderful production of ‘Sizwe Banzi Is Dead’ at the Goodman in Chicago in 1974. It knocked my socks off. So we just hung out in bars together and lied about women, and stuff like that. And I’ve known Kyra since she was still in high school, when I did a summer on ‘Another World’ while she was a regular. And of course I’ve known (her husband) Kevin Bacon for years and years and years.

“So it’s just nice to be working with folks you know,” Macy concludes. “It makes all the difference.”

“David’s loyalty runs very deep,” says Smith, who’s also worked with Mamet intermittently for 20 years. Onstage, Smith acted in Mamet’s adaptations of classics and appeared in the Off Broadway production of “Edmond,” later directing a revival of Mamet’s bleak satire at the Powerhouse in Santa Monica in 1989. On the screen, Smith acted in Mamet’s films “Homicide” and “Things Change,” and on television he appeared in the recent TNT presentation of Mamet’s “The Water Engine,” in which Macy reprised his starring role from the 1977 premiere.

Christened “Mamet’s Mafia” by industry insiders, other members of this professional clan--the majority old cronies from the 1970s in Chicago--include Joe Mantegna, J. J. Johnston, Jack Wallace, George Wendt--all of whom will soon crowd the Tiffany’s second theater with a production of Mamet’s first full-length play, “Lakeboat,” opening Feb. 24. That show is co-produced by Mamet’s younger brother, Tony.

“It’s gonna be like a Mamet festival here,” Macy enthuses, “a hoot. It’s just a gas to hang out with those guys.”

“I believe in this loyalty,” Smith adds. “We love, trust and respect each other. My friend David said to Bill, ‘Let Lonnie do this role.’ I’ve been an actor for 36 years. I’ve done episodics, from ‘St. Elsewhere’ to ‘L.A. Law’. I deserve a shot. My father was a heroin dealer and my mother died of alcoholism. I remember the police kicking my door in when I was 4, looking for my father. I remember hunting for the man who raped my mother, to kill him, when I was 10 or 11. I had to think my way out of the ghetto(of the South Side of Chicago). How to do this? ‘You’re an intellectual,’ David said. ‘Just learn the lines and do it.’ ”

According to Macy, Smith’s casting illustrates valuable lessons about the play’s themes of power and control.

“Black men and women in general have more in common when it comes to political correctness and power,” Macy says, “than women and white men. They’re both an oppressed minority. It’s a white guy’s world. That’s the way it is. So (Smith and Sedgwick) have more in common than I would with Kyra, for instance. Our camps are separated by a wider gulf, politically. And so it’s interesting that these two factions (white woman, black male) with so much in common perform this battle to the death. It makes the play maybe even a little more heartbreaking.”

After all this, what does Macy expect Mamet to say about his direction of “Oleanna?”

“Dave will come and say . . .” Macy mimics Mamet: “ ‘Well, you took a shot.’ "*