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July 3, 2009

TT: He said, she did

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two West Coast plays, the Los Angeles revival of David Mamet's Oleanna and the La Jolla premiere of Claudia Shear's Restoration. Both are first rate. Here's an excerpt.

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David Mamet shocked a great many people when he declared that he was no longer a "brain-dead liberal." What made him change his stripes? "I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart," he wrote in a much-quoted essay published last year in the Village Voice. That belated conclusion won't come as a surprise to anyone who sees "Oleanna," Mamet's 1992 two-character play about a sexual-harassment case, in the incisive Broadway-bound revival now playing at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. Whatever else "Oleanna" is or isn't, it's definitely not the work of a playwright who takes a rosy view of human nature.

6a00d8341c630a53ef011570f63dbc970b-500wi.jpgBill Pullman plays John, the self-important but well-meaning professor who tries to help Carol (Julia Stiles), a student who is floundering in one of his classes and comes to his office in despair. We see their meeting, at which nothing egregiously offensive happens. Then, in the second act, we learn that Carol has filed an official complaint of harassment by John in which she exaggerates and misrepresents everything that took place in the first act. At first it appears that the complaint arises from a genuine misunderstanding, but Carol turns out to be part of a "group" of female students "who suffer what I suffer." She's been collecting evidence against John on their behalf, and in third act she hints that their real purpose is to control what he teaches in his classes....

What is most impressive about this revival, which Doug Hughes ("Doubt") has directed with an enthralling combination of force and subtlety, is that the actors give both characters their due: Mr. Pullman is so tightly wound that he all but quivers, while Ms. Stiles appears to have strolled directly into the theater from the nearest classroom....

I last saw Claudia Shear on Broadway 10 years ago in "Dirty Blonde," her delightful three-person play about a woman obsessed with the spirit of Mae West. Alas, I haven't heard much of her since then, so I made a point of going to the La Jolla Playhouse to catch the premiere of "Restoration," her fictionalized retelling of the story of the 2003 cleaning of Michelangelo's David. Ms. Shear plays Giulia, a middle-aged scholar-restorer with a redwood-sized chip on her shoulder who becomes obsessed with the statue in part because she believes herself to be physically unattractive: "Beautiful eyes--the catch-all compliment for the plain woman." No doubt this too-neat summary sounds as though Ms. Shear is using a great work of art as the pretext for a three-hankie weeper. Not so: "Restoration" is a beautifully wrought portrait of an unhappy woman who uses her sharp tongue to hold the world at bay...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted July 3, 2009 12:00 AM

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