PLAYBILL PICKS: David Mamet's Five Most Memorable Men

By Robert Simonson
25 Oct 2012

William H. Macy as John in the original Off-Broadway production of Oleanna.
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

John, Oleanna

You wouldn't describe the dialogue between the two adversarial characters in Oleanna as singing. More like two gears angrily grinding against each other. This 1992 two-character play instantly became controversial hot ticket upon opening Off-Broadway, with Macy as John, a professor, and Rebecca Pigeon (Mamet's wife) as Carol, his student. Audiences spilled onto the streets, arguing the sides of each characters, and debating who was in the wrong.

In the play, Carol comes to John during office hours seeking help with the material assigned in his class. Certain ambiguous gestures and comments are misinterpreted and, by the second act, Carol has filed a formal complaint against John, accusing him of sexual harassment. Their relationship devolves from there, becoming more confused and combative, leading to an ending of surprising violence. Audience viewed the production as a blistering look at political correctness, but largely disagreed as to what Mamet's message was.

While Carol was roundly regarded by critics as one of Mamet's most fully realized female creations, John is the prize part here. Depending on your point of view, he's either villain or victim, but probably a mix of both, all the while remaining pathetically human, and a bit grandiose. A feast for an actor.

Macy said that one thing John shared with other Mamet characters is, "that fellow can talk… Actors love the dialogue because it literally feels good to say it. It's got rhythm and meter and poetry. the music in it literally feels good to say. And [Mamet's characters are] oddball characters. Sometimes marginalized characters, but the lead in the play! They're characters that usually don't have stories told about them."

"You ever get accused of something you know you didn't do? And your antagonist is utterly convinced of your guilt, no matter your argument?" asked Lage. "That’s John in Oleanna. He also gets off on his role of college professor as didactic godhead. That's his undoing. Arrogant, hubristic, a bit clueless. Perfect qualities for a tragic hero."