Teacher's Pet
Oleanna. By David Mamet. Directed by Cindy Ann Sicchio and Roger Michael McNall. Starring Lawrence Radecker and Danielle Kerley. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Mason), through Aug. 22. Call 673-3847.

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.

Unfortunately, most of the other characters simply exude affectation. While Johnny Moreno's very staged delivery of the lines works with his staid character Ben, Solis' similar delivery as Guadalupe blocks any deeper understanding of his sudden switches from husband to abuser, lover to killer. Solis' script clearly gestures toward this character's complexity, but as an actor Solis fails to step out of the bad-boy pachuco cookie-cutter image he elsewhere tries to explode. Perhaps this weakness is partly the fault of his own overwriting. And I'm all for nonlinear storytelling, but the lack of visual and narrative clues to contextualize the time/space fractures (like when La Romy gives her mother advice from the womb) makes certain moments confusing. Finally, the production's overreliance on the mythical to provide a neat wrap-up of the story's frayed ends makes you wonder if Solis' complicated cultural landscape could ever really come together.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

All About Dad
Living Quarters: After Hippolytus. By Brian Friel. Directed by Douglas Dildine. Star-ring Stephen Daly, Mikel O'Riordan, and Bernadette McCarthy. Presented by D.E.O. Ireland at the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Oak), through Aug. 22. Call 861-8972.

Irish playwright Brian Friel's Living Quarters: After Hippolytus is a crazy quilt of a play: a cozy if melancholic family drama slapped together with a muzzy-headed revision of Euripides' tragedy of misbegotten and unrequited love, Hippolytus. All this is filtered through a temporal lens where the characters observe their past lives from the vantage point of their present.

The energetic and quick-paced performance from D.E.O. Ireland, a 6-year-old local Irish theater ensemble, captures the way families create their own islands of language and meaning. Commandant Frank Butler's four children -- all but one grown -- have convened in their claustrophobic childhood home to celebrate their father's return from a heroic mission in the Middle East. While Frank is out, his children drink tea and whiskey, eat doughnuts and cream cakes, and exchange light reminiscences that descend inadvertently into cobwebbed pain -- about the wounding effects of their father's stiff diffidence or their now-deceased mother's hypocritical class pride, etc. In Douglas Dildine's set, the three rooms spill into each other, graphically conveying the fluid slippage in the Butler family between repression and confession.

The performers succeed in making an unfamiliar world feel close by, but their almost unremittingly chirpy delivery obscures the script's lapses from requests for tea and toast to deeper and more dangerous concerns. Except for Bernadette McCarthy, in a suggestively layered performance as one of the sisters, only the supporting actors win our full attention and affection: the bumbling original sinner Father Tom (John Nolan) and a sister's sly, obsequious husband (Ciaran Holahan) repeatedly caught trying to insinuate himself into a story that didn't originally include him.

These quirky touches, however, don't begin to make up for the fact that Living Quarters' ostensible center is MIA. The drama takes place on the day Frank learns of an affair between his milquetoasty son Ben and his new child-bride Anna. We'd like to be sorry for Frank, but we're distracted by the object of his grief: Un-like Theseus, Frank has fallen for a per-fect cipher -- a fitting lover for his utterly vacuous son.

Friel should have studied the Euripidean tragedy of his subtitle. Hippolytus not only delivers the forces of circumstance and coincidence with crystalline purity, but the characters as well. When these three pull into and against one another, we're consumed by a fidgety, sympathetic desire to separate out and rearrange them, to salvage ruined lives. Living Quarters engenders only hapless indifference, which it tries to undo with a postmodern stunt: The play has its characters beg the narrator to change the course of events, doing on their own behalf what we should want to do for them.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Melrose Place, In Rhyme
The Misanthrope. By Moliere. Translated and adapted by Neil Bartlett. Directed by Cliff Mayotte. Starring Stephen Robinson, Robert Parsons, Lewis Sims, and Beth Daly. At New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom (at Eighth Street), through Aug. 30. Call 789-8532.

The leap from Louis XIV's court to cell-phone Hollywood is small, at least in terms of ego and rotten ambition, but crossing that canyon with a theatrical style is another matter. Moliere was the Sun King's royal jester, the self-appointed satirist of social climbing at Versailles; but that was the 1600s, when it was OK to do rhyming verse. Not even poet-playwrights like Derek Walcott write whole plays in verse now for the simple reason that rhyming dialogue has seen its day. So watching an adaptation of The Misanthrope that claws costumes and dialogue into the 1990s but keeps Moliere's rhyme scheme is very odd.

Here Celimene is a backbiting slut of an actress with a Hollywood loft; the misanthrope Alceste is a disgruntled screenwriter; everyone else is somehow involved in show business, and Oronte -- Alceste's rival -- is a screenwriter who nevertheless gives Alceste a taste of his talent in sonnet form. It's like a rhyming Melrose Place. And the opening lines are painful. When Alceste gives his speech about the ugliness and fakery of contemporary culture, Philinte says, "This town's too small to rant and rave and rock the boat/ Life is but a dream if you just let yourself float!" (Gag.) Dr. Seuss had more felicity.

But somehow the play works. When the actors hit a groove you forget how bad the lines are; and when the translator (Neil Bartlett) stays away from excruciatingly current references, and simply translates Moliere, it starts to cook. The story has Alceste falling miserably in love with Celimene, who flirts with everyone in Hollywood: She's nasty enough behind their backs, but she can't be cruel to anyone face to face. Alceste worries that she's faithless -- which she is -- and Arsinoe, an older actress, gives her a snide report of her slipping reputation. These two scenes, first the catty confrontation between the women and then the jealous proclamations of Alceste, are smooth and forceful, partly because Janet Keller is so good at being venomous, as Arsinoe, and partly because Stephen Robinson's Alceste comes alive with the task of being lovesick. The play also improves when the actors stop thinking about meter and let the lines (wherever possible) slip naturally off their tongues.

One touch that doesn't work is the music. The show opens with a choreographed introduction showing all the characters schmoozing around Celimene's apartment to a throbbing metal-influenced song by Six Eye Columbia, a band fronted by one of the cast members. It jars. Besides clashing with Celimene's chicly retro decor, it just doesn't seem like the kind of music these Hollywood types would listen to. As a directorial decision it doesn't make sense. A touch of nepotism?

-- Michael Scott Moore

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