REVIEW: Oleanna (American Theater Company)

 

ATC Takes Mamet to School

 

 

Oleanna - American Theater Company 1 Oleanna - American Theater Company 3
   
American Theater Company presents
  
Oleanna
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Rick Snyder
at ATC, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through October 24  | 
tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching the American Theater Company’s production of Oleanna, you get the sense that the young David Mamet must have been really pissed off by one of his professors. The two-person academic melee screams with anger towards the ivory tower. I bet Mamet must have known and hated someone like John, the pedantic teacher on the brink of tenure. Helmed by director Rick Snyder, ATC’s Oleanna sears and fumes, leaving the audience awe-struck after the chilling finale.

The incendiary play races along for three acts. Each one depicts Jon (the towering Darrell W. Cox) and Carol (the contrastingly petite Nicole Lowrance) clamor for control, the fight escalating exponentially with time. Carol, a meek student well aware of the price of college admission, seeks academic freedom and understanding, while Jon fights for his right to dispense knowledge as he sees fit. His entire livelihood is at stake; he is in the final throes of achieving tenure and purchasing a house, and complaining Carol could ruin everything. And as much as Oleanna is about a teacher and student, it is about a man and a woman.

Oleanna - American Theater Company 2Seen by some as misogynistic, the play taps into the lingering sexism that survived third-wave feminism. When read or played wrong, Carol can come off as a nagging, soul-sucking imp. But Lowrance nails it; her Carol isn’t bright, but she wants to learn and becomes demoralized and angry when her arrogant professor tears into her high opinion of secondary education. I always find myself siding with her—yeah, she becomes vicious and cocky by the end, but Jon’s like that from the beginning, and has probably been that way for his entire teaching career. At times, Carol feels like a character who doesn’t want to be in a Mamet play. She sputters and gropes for words, unlike most of his creations with razor-sharp vocabularies, Jon included. Her inarticulateness actually grounds the character, who is probably one of the best concoctions Mamet’s typewriter has conceived.

Cox creates a fascinating portrayal of Jon, a man who paints himself as a social revolutionary but actually plays strictly by the rules, however elitist or sexist they may be. Cox’s Jon is surprisingly unassuming, speaking in crackly, tenor tones. He’s pompous and long-winded, but it comes out of a place of insecurity. Worn down by the stress of the real estate deal, he seems at the end of his rope, especially as Carol tosses wrenches into his plans. Cox also adds a stitch of creepy social awkwardness. When he consoles Carol by caressing her back at the end of Act One, everyone in the house was squirming in their seats.

Together, Lowrance and Cox are dynamite. They squawk rhetoric at each other, grabbing for the reins of the relationship. Snyder’s staging navigates the text wonderfully and sculpts the tension. For example, the famous brutal assault in Act Three springs like a trap and knocks the audience’s wind out. As it turns out, John is actually a terrific teacher because Carol becomes just as power-hungry as him.

Although usually well-forged, a few aspects of the production were muddy. One major issue is that we never really know why Carol continues to visit Jon. We’re left wondering if she’s just wrathful or driven by something more powerful than mere revenge.

ATC placed Oleanna alongside Speed-the-Plow (our review ★★★) to form a combo platter entitled “The Mamet Repertory.” Placing both plays next to each oddly pulls out similar themes in each. However, I preferred the claws-out combat of Oleanna to Plow’s Hollywood cynicism. The ending of Oleanna is superb. The characters are shattered, but there is no resolution, no catharsis. When the lights go down, we’re left gasping for air.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

 

    

Continue reading

REVIEW: Speed-the-Plow (American Theater Company)

Strong “Plow” ends in the slow-lane

 

Speed-the-Plow Mamet - American Theater Company 3

   
American Theater Company presents
   
Speed-the-Plow
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by
Rick Snyder
at
ATC, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through October 24  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Although I’ve never actually seen someone’s eyeballs turn into dollar signs, Lance Baker’s portrayal of Charlie Fox in ATC’s Speed-the-Plow comes pretty close. There’s plenty of greed in David Mamet’s 1988 play, which tears into the artist’s antithesis, the Hollywood producer. Rick Snyder’s production of this usually hilarious, occasionally stomach-churning look behind-the-scenes fires on all cylinders. While the weaker of the two parts that make up their Mamet Repertory, this Speed-the-Plow will definitely make you feel slimy by the end.

Bertolt Brecht once claimed that he wanted to write plays about everyday, yet crucial, aspects of society, such as grain prices. Although his style is pretty far from Brechtian, Mamet’s choice of subject matter is pretty similar to Bertolt. Pulitzer prize winning Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t about such oft-mined topics like love, death, or family – it’s about business. Speed-the-Plow stays in the same vein, pitting profits against artistic merit with several souls hanging in the balance.

The play centers on producer Bobby Gould (Darrell W. Cox), who wields the power to greenlight one project a year and needs to make his decision count. His friend and subordinate Charlie brings him a buddy flick with a big star attached, if they make the call within 24 hours. But then Karen (Nicole Lowrance, in a role originated by Madonna, no joke), a temp worker covering for Bobby’s secretary, catches his attention. In an attempt to impress her, he throws her a novel to read, something which he knows can’t translate into a blockbuster. However, the book changes her outlook on life, and she does what she can to change his mind.

Speed-the-Plow Mamet - American Theater Company 2Compared to Oleanna, the other talk-a-thon in American Theater’s David Mamet repertory (our review ★★★½), I find Speed-the-Plow hard to crack. For me, the cataclysmic last moments between John and Carol resonate so much deeper than the scheming of Bobby and Charlie. Speed-the-Plow is part cynical comedy, part morality tale, and part artist’s manifesto; there’s a lot to take in, especially when the dialogue moves faster than NASCAR. Also, the play may also be predicting the Apocalypse, but I’m never sure.

Maybe the best part of the whole “repertory” concept is watching Cox switch from John’s loose sweaters and glasses to Bobby’s slicked-back hair and gold chains. The man obviously has a lot of fun with Gould’s skeeziness. Sitting at the top, Gould has no friends, only people who want to get stuff from him. Cox makes this clear throughout the play, through both jokes and breakdowns. He’s helped by Baker, who is great at conniving. Baker bounces around like he’s had far too much coffee, or maybe not enough. Cox keeps right up with him. Lowrance’s Karen is strikingly different than Carol—she’s way more flirtatious and paints her fingernails, although both women have a mousey timidity about them. The text calls for Lowrance to slow down the pace after the lightning rounds between Gould and Fox, but here it’s a bit too much. The second act, which features mostly monologues from Karen as she tries to communicate the effect the novel has on her, drags considerably. There’re a lot of big words, very little movement, and it just gets hard to follow after awhile. The pacing would probably be perfect for most other plays, but for Mamet it feels like a piggyback ride on a sloth.

The production regains it’s ferocity in the last act, and one leaves the theatre feeling hollow inside. Yes, everyone is sad that art gets the shaft, but I felt more pity for Bobby, whom everyone has a fork stuck in. You can find out more about his fate in the one-act semi-sequel Mamet wrote, Bobby Gould in Hell.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 

 

Speed-the-Plow Mamet - American Theater Company

Continue reading

Review: Profile Theatre’s “The Mercy Seat”

 Commendable performances make best of flawed script

MERCY SEAT - Horizontal Press Photo

Profiles Theatre presents:

The Mercy Seat

by Neil LaBute
directed by Joe Jahraus
thru November 15th (buy tickets)

reviewed Catey Sullivan

With The Mercy Seat, Profiles Theatre continues its long collaboration with Neil LaBute as well as its far shorter but oh-so rewarding work with Cheryl Graeff. The former isn’t in top shape with this elliptical and implausible drama. The latter creates a complex, indelible and exhaustingly authentic character within a deeply flawed play.

The two-hander between Graeff and Darrell W. Cox begins on Sept. 12, 2001. Abby (Graeff), enters her New York apartment breathing through a scarf and emitting powdery ash as she unpacks a sack of groceries. On the couch, gazing into space with a thousand-mile shell-shocked stare is Ben (Cox), seemingly oblivious to the insistent ring of his cell phone and unable to process the apocalyptic scene outside.

Mercy V 4 cropped LaBute’s dialogue gives you the sense of eavesdropping. Coming in mid-conversation, the 100-minute drama is more than half over before it becomes quasi-clear precisely what’s going on here. Who is supposed to be on the receiving end of the all-important call that Abby keeps demanding Ben make? Who keeps calling his cell phone? Why is it so important that he stay away from the windows? What is this “meal ticket” he keeps referring to in tandem with the catastrophe unfolding outside?

While LaBute’s intentionally cryptic sentences become tedious at times, the performances are good enough to make them tolerable and imbue them with authenticity, even as the plot holes start to loom ever larger.. Among the most gaping incongruity is the fact that Ben’s cell phone works impeccably on a day when virtually every cell phone in New York City went dead. Between unanswered calls, Ben and Abby engage in a dark-night-of-the-soul debate about heated moral issues. Thankfully, the dialogue sounds not like a debate but a genuine conversation pocked with stops, starts and things blurted out before they are fully thought through. Eventually, we learn that Ben was at Abby’s apartment on the receiving end of oral sex when the planes hit the Towers. Had he gone to work on time instead of stopping by for a morning blow job, he probably would have been killed.

The two at first seem incredibly self-absorbed. While the world around them is in ruins, they argue about oral sex techniques. They attack each other so relentlessly and with such personal venom, it’s difficult to understand why they’re together at all. That she’s a high powered executive; he’s a schlub whose defining characteristic is passivity makes mystery of their mutual attraction all the more baffling. As LaBute eventually clears that matter up (with some graphic sex talk), the other unknowns of the piece come into view as well.

As he so predictably does, LaBute ends with a twist, this one involving Cox’s miraculously functional cell phone.

What works in this piece is Graeff’s performance as a woman who is both powerful and desperate, self-loathing and strident with pride. Cox has less to work with as a classic LaBute male of few redeeming qualities. Together, the two make you wish Profiles would take a stab at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

The Mercy Seat continues through Nov. 15 AT Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are $30 and $35. For more information, go to www.profilestheatre.org or call 773/549-1815..

Rating: ««½

 

Continue reading