David Mamet likes to deal in babble. He's done street babble, business babble, the babble of academic politics; and this last category is the language of Oleanna, his 1992 play about a professor accused by a female student of sexual harassment and rape. It may be the worst example of his taste for broken sentences. The first act is like a Mamet parody, with the arrogant, distracted professor -- "John" -- leaning back in his office chair, trying to be profound to a student who can't make sense of his book. The phone keeps ringing because John is buying a house. Carol, the student, sits hunched over her notebook and feels inferior. They talk back and forth in what might as well be different languages, never quite saying what they mean; and the effect, at least in this production, is irritating. Lawrence Radecker and Danielle Kerley don't act with the kind of energy that Mamet's lines demand, but even with more energy the babble would be hard to stomach.
John says a few stupid things in Act 1 that he pays for later: He tells a joke about sex, and offers Carol an A in his course if she'll come to his office regularly, for special help. By Act 2 Carol has complained to the tenure committee about his behavior, threatening John's career; but it's clear that in the meantime John hasn't followed up any of his suggestive talk with even the mildest pass. This makes Carol's claim outrageous and John's character hard to understand. Wasn't he thinking about sex? Or was he just being an idiot? Didn't he realize he was treading a line? We don't know. John is too incoherent in the second and third acts for us to learn. In that sense the show is weighted on John's side, which makes Carol almost impossible to play, and Kerley, in fact, is stilted and bland. Her broken lines have no conviction. "I come from a different social --," she says, and you know she means "social class," or "background," or something, but the delivery makes it sound as if Carol has just come from an ice-cream social.
Mamet did a brave thing by inflicting Oleanna on the early '90s, which badly needed a public controversy about political correctness on the stage. He drew the title from a folk song that goes, "Oh, to be in Oleanna/ That's where I'd like to be/ Than to be in Norway/ And wear the chains of slavery." The shifting balance of power between Carol and John shows that Mamet was at least driving at the idea that men and women both will lash out when they feel victimized, when they feel "Oleanna" slipping out of reach. The problem is that Carol and John are stick figures, relentlessly and dryly hateful, sketched with only enough humanity for Mamet to make his point.
-- Michael Scott Moore
Across the Borderlands
El Otro. By Octavio Solis. Directed by Tony Kelly. Starring Solis, Maria Candelaria, Johnny Moreno, and Monica Sanchez. At the Brava Theater Center, 2789 24th St. (at York), through Aug. 16. Call 441-3687.
Chicano/Latino dramatic arts have come far since the days of Luis Valdez's machocentric, brown-nationalist productions of the Viva el Zoot Suit variety. Cherrie Moraga, Migdalia Cruz, Ricardo Bracho, Jose Rivera, and Guillermo Gomez-Pena are just a few of the new wave of local writers out to shake up yesterday's ready-made characterizations -- the badass pachuco, the sellout, the white-boy-impersonating pocho, the virgin senorita, and the violent Malinche whore. Playwright Octavio Solis' new play, El Otro, aims to show a Chicano cultural landscape filled with complicated shades of brown. Directed by Tony Kelly, El Otro gives a brief yet deeply rooted glimpse into the life of La Romy (Maria Candelaria), a teen-age Chicana who struggles to hold on to her humanity and emotional innocence in a dust-ridden borderland where women like her mother accept love in its various harsh disguises: cold reserve, the black-and-blues, or bullets marked jealousy.
We meet La Romy the day her newly acquired stepfather, the squeaky-clean, xenophobic Ben Cortez (Johnny Moreno), tells her she's no longer going to live with her reprobate father, Guadalupe (played by playwright Solis). Her dad -- an old-school pachuco called Lupe, complete with tattooed neck, .45, and open-shirted wife-beater ensemble -- isn't about to let Ben off so easy. ("Custody, property, restraining orders, it's all bullshit.") He jumps behind his lowrider's wheel and takes the pair on an episodic journey -- and not to just any old otro lado. Along the way, La Romy meets up with a variety of characters: a hand-wringing Latina who spews nonsensical Spanglish; an Anglo redneck desperate for dope and a tarp in which to dispose of his lover's corpse; an angsty Border Patroller fed up with his job; and a black-velvet-clad, spur-clicking African-American charro (Mexican rodeo cowboy) trickster spirit.
As the play unfolds, Solis and Kelly take the audience deep into their borderland world through a series of flashback-within-flashback moments as well as magical time/space foldings. In El Otro's landscape, the dead mingle with the living, Chicano cowboys are of African descent, inveterate sellouts get down with Raza politics, and downtrodden women emancipate themselves. As the Border Patroller exclaims, "My compass is all spun!" The child-woman La Romy is the perfect lens through which to view this constantly changing world; she can see beyond banality and brutality, and is one of Solis' cleverest inventions.
In the staging, director Kelly reproduces her poetic vision of the world by suddenly freezing the action, blasting hybrid Tex-Mex guitar riffs overhead, and giving her room to wax lyrical. Maria Candelaria manages to pull off such moments with the perfect combination of innocence and street smarts; when el charro induces La Romy to take drugs, her words describing the heroin -- "tug her chemical heart down down follow that sun down to where it goes" -- work.