When South Coast Repertory announced David Mamet's "Oleanna" for the Second Stage, it seemed a failure of imagination. SCR might as well have said that it needed a quick, cheap play to do and that "Oleanna," which opened Friday, was the quickest and cheapest it could find: It has two characters and requires no more than a desk, a couple of chairs and a telephone that rings.
The choice also seemed an abdication of the theater's self-mandated policy to keep Southern California playgoers abreast of the best, latest work it could find. "Oleanna" is not remotely new, let alone Mamet's best. It premiered six years ago, come May, went to New York soon after, and has been done to death at regional theaters across the country ever since. Six Southland productions have already preceded it, just counting those reviewed in The Times, as well as the movie.
The surprise is that SCR's belated revival in Costa Mesa turns out to be on the money. As staged by artistic director Martin Benson, it is well worth seeing--especially because of Michael Canavan, who plays a college teacher provoked and humiliated by an up-from-under student (Lynsey McLeod) out to destroy him. This production largely fulfills Mamet's contention that theatrical reality is high art achieved by brave, even heroic, acting.
Like his play or not--and it has flaws--SCR first-nighters witnessed an authentic encounter between two characters who come to hate and fear each other. It was absorbing, frightening, dazzling and cathartic. Through the conviction of their performances, Canavan and to a lesser extent McLeod persuaded us that something important was at stake: human decency and how it gets corrupted by lies, brutality, desperation, jealousy, revenge, ideology and all sorts of Procrustean hostilities.
Canavan's portrayal of the teacher was so effortless, straightforward and full of nuance that the shattering emotional impact of the encounter had the resonance of real life. McLeod succeeded to a lesser degree mainly because Mamet has written an implausible virago whose scheme unfolds with too many unresolved contradictions. She tried for actorly effects, perhaps to compensate for the weak writing and possibly to ease her transformation from meek in the first act to mighty in the second. This transformation is the least satisfying aspect of "Oleanna."
Within the blink of an eye Mamet has her go from needy, self-abasing mouse to nasty, self-righteous scourge. This is not unheard of. It frequently happens in religious conversions, and perhaps that's the implicit analogy Mamet wants to make. But if we are to believe an off-stage coven of witchy, man-hating feminists has fired her up and launched her at a tweedy target of opportunity, Mamet will have to come up with a better Miss Guided Missile than the hollow straw man he has created in her.
"Oleanna," South Coast Repertory Second Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends April 5. $26-$41. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission).
Michael Canavan: John
Lynsey McLeod: Carol
A South Coast Repertory production of a play by DaviMamet. Director: Martin Benson. Scenic design: John Iacovelli. Costume design: Amy L. Hutto. Lighting design: Tom Ruzika. Sound design: B.C. Keller. Production manager: Michael Mora. Stage manager: Kristin Ahlgren.