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Ladies’ Nights

In Oleanna, Julia Stiles transcends David Mamet's agitprop script; in The Royal Family, Rosemary Harris is just transcendent. Plus: Ann Landers, a woman who really knew her audience.

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Rosemary Harris in The Royal Family.  

Oleanna
At the John Golden Theatre
The language of David Mamet’s Oleanna is the loop-de-looping, tail-chasing of cartoon squirrels, with the characters stepping on one another’s sentences before they can be formed into finished thoughts. Oleanna was a response to the political correctness of the early nineties: A male professor on the eve of finally getting tenure tries to help a frustrated female student, who grossly misinterprets his concern and slaps him with a harassment charge. What should save the play from being a plodding tract about sexual harassment is the energy and complexity of Mamet’s dialogue, which serve his bigger, overarching idea: That moral certainty, without the discipline of agile, flexible thought behind it, is a dangerous thing.

The problem with this production, directed by Doug Hughes (Doubt), is that the actors, Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, have been put in the predicament of playing concepts rather than characters. Even when they’re talking to each other, it sometimes feels (intentionally or not) like they’re declaiming to the audience. As John, the first compassionate and then defensive, victimized professor, Pullman pieces his performance together as a mosaic of stylized tics—it’s mannered even when it needs to be anguished. Stiles fares much better, maybe because she’s such a deadpan actress: Her gaze is piercing, both a challenge and a taunt. Her Carol is at first just unnerving and then terrifying, as if she’s turned on by her own righteousness. She gets way deeper than the SparkNotes version of the play, and gives the production the feral hunger it needs. –S. Z.

The Lady With All the Answers
At the Cherry Lane Theatre
In the dark decades before bloggery and Craigslist—before exhibitionism replaced tortured reserve as the American default—our national aggregator of candor, shame, and shamelessness was Eppie Lederer, better known to her millions of readers as Ann Landers. For almost half a century, Eppie/Ann (in competition with her arch-foe and twin sister Pauline “Dear Abby” Lederer) moderated a national conversation on the Good Life, with trending topics ranging from the publicly unspeakable (e.g., infidelity, homosexuality, whether “size matters”) to the infinitesimal (e.g., whether a toilet roll should hang with its leading sheet edge against the wall or out; Ann says the wall wins). Her mailbag was a running census of the real America in the bathroom and in the bedroom, and she answered every query with the sort of enlightened squareness that might (David Rambo’s one-woman play gently, perhaps too-gently, suggests) represent the very best in American progressivism.

We find Eppie/Ann at home, puttering about the aureate opulence of her Gold Coast apartment in Northside Chicago as she prepares to write the hardest column of her career: the 1975 revelation that her exemplary marriage of 30 years, the touchstone of her certainty and the bedrock of her “cure it don’t kill it” philosophy, was suddenly coming to an end. As Ann, Judith Ivey floods the Cherry Lane with toasty midwestern hospitality, alternated with ghostly drafts of chill midwestern furtiveness. When she corners herself, she reads a letter, or puts questions to the crowd and expects real answers. (Rambo goes to this well perhaps twice too often.) Her advice column, the play suggests, was prescriptive, but hardly dictatorial in the Dr. Laura style. Indeed, it might be seen as an early experiment in crowd-sourcing. “I always defer to the experts,” she half-jokes, ever willing to shed her oracular aura for a closer, cozier relationship with her readers. It’s a familiar tightrope today, but Eppie walked it first, and maybe best: Long before transparency come into vogue, she believed in the power of straight-talk as no enemy of propriety, but its necessary adjunct. Above all, she was unassailably humane. As is this downy-soft production, whose thread count may be a little too high to leave a lasting impression but which makes for a nice night. –S. B.

The Royal Family
At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
The Cavendish clan in George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 play The Royal Family—an affectionate parody of the quirks, missteps, and bad habits of the Barrymore dynasty—are bohemian in the true sense of the word, before it was used to describe any old celebrity in a Rachel Zoe caftan. And yet the various Cavendishes’ fondness for sleeping past noon, indulging in lusty liaisons, and spending their dollars into the negative figures doesn’t eclipse the fact that they’re basically working people, plying their trade onstage and onscreen.

The director of this Manhattan Theatre Club production, Doug Hughes (who’s also behind the recently opened revival of Oleanna), understands that this may be a pointed comedy, but it’s not a cruel one. He loves these willful crackpots, as he needs to. What’s missing from the show is buoyancy. There’s a dogged quality to too many of the performances, as if the actors had dutifully seized the material by the scruff of the neck instead of sidling up to it flirtatiously. When Jan Maxwell as Julie Cavendish, an aging prima donna who’s facing a midlife crisis, reads a breathlessly written telegram aloud, she adds too much punctuation, destroying the deliriously nonsensical effect of the hasty, jumbled words as Kaufman and Ferber wrote them. Everyone here is working hard, but most of them are making it look too much like work.

There are exceptions: Reg Rogers, as the roguish Tony Cavendish—clearly modeled on John Barrymore—has just the right boozy twinkle in his eye. He strides through the show, in an assortment of louche silk dressing gowns and shaggy fur coats, with liquid precision. Maxwell, too, comes through in the clutch; in the finale, some of her varnished meticulousness dissolves, and she cuts straight to the play’s half-melancholy, half-optimistic heart. And Rosemary Harris, as the dowager matriarch Fanny, may wear the heaviest costumes—she’s draped in exotic, old-fashioned (by twenties standards) velvets—but her performance is the springiest, the most fleet, in the show. Her lines have the texture and glow of South Sea pearls; if any voice could reflect light, it would be this one. –S.Z.


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