Pullman Two-Hander

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Bill Pullman's handsome, neighborly features continue to earn him starring and supporting roles in countless feature films, but they also give him the perfect façade for playing Edward Albee's darkly repressed Manhanttanites. Pullman has only two major stage roles in his recent bio, but both were Albee's and both were subtle but startlingly deep performances. The first was the part of Martin in Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goat, the second was the role Peter in Albee's 2007 double-bill titled Peter and Jerry.

In both performances, Pullman excelled at quietly conveying the hidden passions that lurk underneath seemingly ordinary and successful husbands. On stage, Pullman is a master of understatement, so in both these roles it wasn't until after I'd seen other actors plays these roles, that I realized how powerful Pullman's performance really was.

This was the case over the weekend, when I saw the West Coast Premiere of Peter & Jerry (now titled At Home at the Zoo) at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. The production was deftly directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman and cleanly designed by Robert Brill. But the role of Peter, the stuffy book publisher, although capably played by Anthony Fusco, simply lacked the compelling sense of control that Pullman brought to the role in the Off-Broadway production. What was noteworthy about this staging was Rene Augesen who played Ann, Peter's comfortable but clearly unsatisfied wife. This role was created by Johanna Day, who was quite good opposite Pullman, but Augesen brings even more complexity. Her Ann is very much a mother and wife who's agreeably at home in her upper-middle-class life; but Augesen and her breathy voice also convey an alternate life. More than the original, Augesen makes it clear that Ann is indeed an animal slightly afraid of leaving the safety of the zoo but curious to experience what lies beyond its bars.

This past weekend also brought the opportunity to see Bill Pullman himself on stage — for the first time not playing an Albee leading man. Pullman is currently starring in the Taper's revival of David Mamet's Oleanna. This 1992 two-handed shocker was a big deal Off-Broadway in the early 90's and the source of a huge back-stage dust-up at the Center Theatre Group. It was supposed to be staged at the Taper in 1994 with Kyra Sedgewick but it was moved elsewhere after a battle of political correctness worthy of it's own full-length play.

Fifteen years later, its good to see it finally on the Taper stage as Mamet's play is still as incendiary as ever. During the play's heated final scene, the audience audibly gasped as the characters trade verbal and then physical blows.

The role of John, a thoroughly ordinary college professor, is a perfect fit for Pullman. At first he looks and sounds like an upstanding and open mind—and then as Mamet strips away his power, Pullman makes it clear just how little John has at his core.

Opposite Pullman is Julia Stiles in the role of Carol, the undergraduate who takes John's class and then proceeds to take him down. Stiles has worked with Mamet before and played this role in London back in 2004. Her performance is assured but Carol is a role that requires not only poise and nuance but also an instinctual, almost animalistic ferocity. Stiles, doesn't tap into these deeper elements of the character, and Mamet's writing is so lean, so stripped to the essentials, that without these intangibles the character feels less than full—and ultimately less than fully believable.

Oleanna is often dismissed as just a polemic. It's much more and its force has not been diminished after almost two decades. It worth noting that Oleanna appeared in the wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill scandal, this summer we will witness another Supreme Court hearing charged with issues on race and gender. This production is perfectly timed with the political theater of Judge Sotomayor's conformation; both will show us how much has changed—and how much hasn't—since Oleanna appeared seventeen years ago.

Oleanna runs through July 12 at the Mark Taper Forum, At Home at the Zoo continues at A.C.T. through July 5.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Bill Pullman in David Mamet's Oleanna at the Mark Taper Formum; Photo by Craig Schwartz