By Harry Haun
12 Oct 2009
|Photo by Aubrey Reuben|
You know the deck is slightly stacked when the first celebs to show up at the Oct. 11 opening of the Broadway revival of David Mamet's Oleanna are Lucy T. Slut, who practices sexual harassment as an Olympic sport, and the timid, milquetoast-y Rod. These two Avenue Q puppets, operated by Anika Larsen and Seth Rettberg, were there to welcome Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles to the Golden, where the puppets had just spent 6½ years, prior to downsizing and taking up residence Off-Broadway, as of Oct. 9, at New World Stages.
With a gender reversal and minor adjustments, Lucy and Rod echo the battle-of-the-sexes that Mamet masterminded back in 1992 in response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill furor and the PC fallout that followed it. He drew the battle-lines for this two-hander/bitch-slap between John, a vulnerable college prof whose new home is hanging by the frayed thread of tenure, and Carol, pleading tearfully and angrily for a passing grade. When he reaches out to console her, she turns the situation into an argument about appropriate behavior, and their miscommunication spins dizzily out of control, floor-boarding them to the abyss.
After this 80-minute assault, haggard first-nighters retired to the Blue Fin at the W Hotel on Broadway for stiff drinks — and, at most tables, the debate continued.
"This is my favorite place for a big party," declared lead producer Jeffrey Finn, who previously used it in 2005 for On Golden Pond (albeit, James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams were not interviewed in the goldfish-bowl bar area and Broadway had not become a suburban thoroughfare).
"I just adore this play," he admitted. "It makes people talk, and that's what good theatre is about." Which is why he has set up a series of post-show discussions to follow the main event. "People are just staying in their seats, riveted. They want to talk about the play because there are so many issues to explore. They've had this incredible experience, and they want to keep it going. We have special panelists who are experts in their field — of education or media or politics or celebrity — and a great moderator for every one of them. I like to refer to it sometimes as a second act."
Finn did not employ a casting director to line up such a dead-on cast. "I did it myself," he confessed proudly. Pullman, the stumbling, sputtering Everyman sinking into a mire of miscommunication, and the gorgeous Stiles with a jaw-line of granite determination and a raw intelligence that betrays the possibility of calculation — these solidify the war zone and bring Mamet's diatribe of a play into sharper focus.
"It's a very different take than the original — primarily because we're seeing it in 2009. The original production took place in a certain moment in time, which made that production unique and made it the talked-about event in New York City for two years. We hope to do that again now because we have a whole new view of it. Where a lot of people think it's just about sexual harassment, it's really about power. That's such a large, large, overriding issue. It's a power game. It's a power play."
Next on Finn's agenda, pegged for Broadway in 2010, is the stage premiere of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the old Spencer Tracy-Sidney Poitier-Katharine Hepburn clambake. "We're working on it now," he said. "We just did a reading of it with Jesse L. Martin, who was terrific." William Rose, who won 1967's Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it, has died; the new adaptation will be by Todd Kriedler, who, Finn pointed out, "was the dramaturg for August Wilson and was heavily involved in the writing of Radio Golf." Huddling in a corner in the second-floor dining area was Michael Ritchie, talking on a cellphone — to wife Kate Burton, who had just landed from L.A and was winging it toward the party. Ritchie is artistic director of the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles (specifically, the Mark Taper Forum where Oleanna tried out).
"We'd started doing the show before I realized I had no idea what Oleanna meant, and I had to look it up," he admitted. "It's the idea for a Utopian community — I believe, in upstate New York — the idea that all people could live in harmony."
In the published play, Mamet clears all this up in his hazy fashion by quoting from a folk song: "Oh, to be in Oleanna, / That's where I would rather be. / Than be bound in Norway / And drag the chains of slavery." There. Now, you know.
"I'm going into rehearsal Tuesday morning for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. That's down at New York Theatre Workshop. It's a superb adaptation by Rebecca Gilman of Carson McCullers' great novel. I'm doing it with Henry Stram and James McDaniel."
The "double-dipping" he has been doing of late, he tended to downplay. "I had the advantage of having done the show in L.A. I think one of the advantages of doing a play successfully in one incarnation and knowing you're going to get a chance to do it again is to really reexamine it, which we did. We went back to work on the production very, very seriously. We didn't just remount the play. I'd meet the actors at nine every morning, and I'd work for five hours, and then I'd join the Royal Family company, which was in previews at that time, so that worked out very well. I walked through the parking lot between 45th and 46th, cut through the Edison Hotel, go over to the Friedman, and I'd see my company. It was a great privilege for me to be able to walk back and forth between two incredible companies of actors."
Otherwise, he conceded, they were worlds apart: "To direct The Royal Family is a fabulous assignment as a battlefield commander, and to direct Oleanna is a little taste of what it must be like to be a psychoanalyst."
Precise casting made his task easier. "I think these two play it hell-for-leather. Oleanna is an extraordinary play, and I think it's a genuine tragedy of democracy."
Political correctness, when cut too fine, creates casualties, and the question of Carol's commitment to bringing John's world down around his ears is still subject to debate, like the ones that spill over after the show. There's a certain lady-or-tigress question mark hovering over the play, and Hughes leaves the door open (as he did with his big Tony winner, Doubt) to opposite interpretations.
"She's somebody who has a viewpoint that she desperately wants to be heard, and so does he, and thereby hangs a tale," Hughes summarized simply. "The greatest plays arise out of impossible situations. Oleanna is a marvelous shift of power, an exertion of power, the use of power, the desire to acquire power — that's what we're all about at Oleanna, and that's what we're all about in our society." Continued...