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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

January 30, 1994|RICHARD STAYTON | Richard Stayton is a frequent contributor to Calendar

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.

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