Theater & dance

theater review

In New Rep’s ‘Oleanna,’ a power play in academia

Johnny Lee Davenport and Obehi Janice in the New Repertory Theatre production of “Oleanna.”
Andrew Brilliant
Johnny Lee Davenport and Obehi Janice in the New Repertory Theatre production of “Oleanna.”

WATERTOWN — In the New Repertory Theatre production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,’’ an angry young woman, having turned the tables on an arrogant middle-aged man she accuses of abusing his power, spells out the new state of play in unequivocal terms.

“You can’t do that anymore,’’ she tells him. “You. Do. Not. Have. The. Power.’’

Hear that, Harvey Weinstein? And all the would-be Harveys out there: All clear?

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This is not to say, however, that Mamet’s own sympathies necessarily lie with the woman in his intermittently gripping but often tedious 1992 two-hander. Indeed, anyone looking to fortify the oft-stated case that Mamet, the quintessential macho playwright, can’t write fully dimensional female characters will find ample evidence in “Oleanna.’’

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A college undergraduate named Carol, played with unremitting intensity by Obehi Janice, is struggling mightily in a class taught by a middle-aged professor named John (Johnny Lee Davenport). Wearing a yellow sweatshirt and a red backpack, Carol shows up at the professor’s office to voice her concerns and perhaps gain a bit of instructive clarity.

What she finds instead is a pedantic, self-important man in a suit who keeps interrupting their conversation to take phone calls from his wife, while Carol seethes with fury and scribbles on her notepad. Throughout the play, she bristles whenever she hears John call his wife “baby.’’ Nonetheless, John initially conveys the air of an avuncular, well-meaning instructor determined to help a student understand elusive subject matter.

The New Rep production, directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, sags badly in this first third of “Oleanna.’’ The exchanges between prof and pupil — about justice, the value of higher education, and her struggles in his class — are stilted, repetitive and wearisome, their crossfire of half-finished sentences lacking any crackle. This is partly because Davenport, ordinarily one of the most compelling actors around, does not yet seem to have his arms around this role.

On the verge of receiving tenure, and also on the verge of closing on a house (that’s why his wife keeps calling), John is preoccupied and prone to rambling. At one point, the professor tells a mildly off-color joke. Oddly, out of nowhere, John promises Carol an “A’’ if she returns to his office for more private meetings. When the student becomes distraught about her difficulties in the class, he places two hands on her shoulders from behind. She freezes, then stalks away, saying “NO.’’ He seems oblivious to having crossed a line. Or is he?

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In any case, matters escalate and deteriorate greatly from there.

At a time when the issues of sexual harassment and assault (including on college campuses) are on the front burner of public attention, “Oleanna’’ could hardly be more timely. But the play’s impact is undercut by Mamet’s tendency to stack the deck in his portrayal of Carol. A figure of barely suppressed fury from the start, she seems driven by ideological zeal, what with her absolutist pronouncements (“Nothing is alleged. All is proved’’), her frequent references to “My Group,’’ and her calls for the banning of certain books.

Or is Carol simply responding out of a sense of legitimate personal affront at the words and actions of her male antagonist, and, by extension, at the teeming world of entitled men beyond his office? Mamet, ever the riddling provocateur, has deliberately shrouded “Oleanna’’ in a haze of ambiguity, where a certain amount is open to interpretation, for a while at least. The playwright does put the often-unexamined prerogatives of male power under a microscope in “Oleanna,’’ but he seems primarily interested in delineating the excesses of identity politics and political correctness, as exemplified by Carol.

Even as the situation between professor and student becomes ever more volatile, “Oleanna’’ largely remains adrift in the realm of abstraction. There’s a curious sterility to the dialogue; John and Carol never quite seem like much more than dueling archetypes, firing off talking points, although the fact that New Rep’s “Oleanna’’ is performed by African-American actors does alter the play’s dynamics slightly.

John’s desperate need to maintain his hard-won professorial status acquires an added urgency, and there’s an extra resonance in Carol’s refusal to be disrespected, in her heated reaction to John’s quoting of Kipling’s line about “the white man’s burden,’’ and in her wary reaction to John’s manipulative attempt to persuade her that the two have much in common.

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But ultimately “Oleanna’’ generates considerably more heat than light.

OLEANNA

Play by David Mamet. Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Mainstage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Nov. 5. Tickets: $35-$65, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com