Non-Prophet Theatre Company, at Cafe Voltaire.
David Mamet's brilliant, controversial comedy-drama receives a solid, interesting production under the direction of Jerry Dellinger, a theater teacher at Lincoln College in central Illinois. By casting two former students as the antagonists in Mamet's darkly funny study of ideological friction in academia, Dellinger blurs the age difference the playwright intended: instead of a baby boomer confounded by his student's hostility to his glib liberalism, Michael Loeffelholz's John is a struggling young prof not much older than the woman who accuses him of sexism, elitism, and pedantry. The conflict here is not showdown at generation gap but an ageless rivalry between the empowered and the disenfranchised: John, who challenges the rules of higher education while clinging to its privileges, is attacked by Carol for mocking the degree she desperately pursues.
Loeffelholz has a good handle on Mamet's precisely fragmented dialogue, and he effectively downplays John's whininess while exposing the brutal hostility that lurks beneath his didactic posturing. Rebecca Bloch plays Carol as a businesslike attorney-in-training, articulating her case with a serene sureness of purpose that's unbeatable even though it's based on a selective misreading of events. Only at the end does the production falter: Carol's victorious smirk is too smug, suggesting--wrongly, I think--that she's fully aware of her intellectual dishonesty; and the actors' final interaction lacks the escalating tension that produces the shocking physical violence of the climax. These flaws notwithstanding, Non-Prophet's Oleanna reaffirms Mamet's stark, stylized text as a sturdy yet flexible work with staying power.