If you like your drama a little risky and haven’t yet checked out Burlington’s Steel Cut Theatre, you should. The two-person company consists of thirtysomethings Frances Binder and James Moore, who came to Vermont fresh from working in the theater scene in Portland, Ore. They debuted in 2011 with Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) and followed that up last January with their own experimental performance piece, near/far.
Now, in the Hoehl Studio Lab at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, Steel Cut is producing David Mamet’s Oleanna — a more traditional drama, but one of the tensest of recent decades. Performed by Moore and Binder under the direction of Castleton State College professor Harry McEnerny, it may not be an easy evening of theater, but it’s a thought-provoking and even transformative one.
Written in 1992, at the height of public debates about political correctness, Mamet’s play pushes buttons. It starts with a familiar scenario: A struggling college student visits a professor’s office, hoping for a better grade. By the end of their conversation, she has enough ammunition to accuse him of sexual harassment and derail his upcoming tenure hearing.
Mamet’s text leaves little doubt that the student has misinterpreted her professor. But why? In a play about the breakdown of meaningful communication, that’s the crux of the matter. More than a “he said, she said” confrontation, Oleanna is about education, and what happens when teachers abdicate their traditional responsibility.
John is an education professor on a mission to deconstruct his own discipline, which he sees as merely an elevated form of “hazing.” As played by Moore, wearing a boomer academic uniform of tweeds and funky tie, he’s voluble, slick, self-involved and pedantic, pacing and gesticulating as he tries to connect with the student, Carol. His desire to reach her is genuine; his fatal error lies in relating everything she says back to himself.
Moore plays the character as a narcissist who scarcely seems to see Carol, let alone lust after her. (That’s why the sexual harassment claim comes off as a transparent cover for her more legitimate, and less actionable, grievances.) Still, John eventually reveals a capacity for insight that makes him more sympathetic.
In the play’s first scene, Binder mostly plays resentful silence to Moore’s noise. But her stolid expression and self-protective body language speak volumes about Carol’s fear of confrontation. When she does speak, haltingly and in fragments, her attitude is supplicating and sullen: She can’t understand why her grade isn’t higher when “I do everything I’m told.” Is that her fault for being “stupid,” or John’s? Deep down, Carol seems to suspect this smart man is wrong about some things, and that suspicion will lead her to fight his authority using the tools closest to hand.
In the two subsequent scenes, Mamet’s Carol isn’t always a convincing creation; she seems more a symbol than a person. It’s not clear why, for instance, she humbly asks John the meaning of “paradigm” and then tosses off words such as “countenance.” Still, Binder plays her, consistently and believably, as a young woman who doesn’t lose her self-effacing, apologetic attitude even as she threatens to ruin a man’s career.
The Hoehl is an open studio space with no “stage,” and this set is as simple as they come: the professor’s desk on one side and the student’s chair on the other, under a track of glaring halogen lights. That setup reinforces McEnerny’s blocking in emphasizing the two players’ polarization; while John fully exploits his own space and frequently intrudes on Carol’s, she stays glued to her chair. It’s an effective image of the power imbalance between teacher and student.
Steel Cut’s Oleanna moves along at a fast clip, and every word does something. But there are moments when, behind Mamet’s rapid-fire verbal power plays, we get an almost tragic sense of things unspoken — of Carol’s sincere desire to learn, and her frustration at John for being too self-doubting to teach her. Rather than a battle of the sexes, the play seems to stage a conflict at the heart of modern education — one that ends here in a Pyrrhic victory.
Oleanna, produced by Steel Cut Theatre. Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, 8 p.m. at Hoehl Studio Lab, Flynn Center, in Burlington. $10-15. steelcuttheatre.com