by David Marmet
at The C. Walsh Theater
through February 2-26.
David Mamet's new play, "the cryptogram," lives up to its name; it is a complex and, at times, inscrutable work. "the cryptogram" chronicles the breakdown of the relationships between a strangely prophetic ten-year-old, John (Sheldon Dane), his exhausted mother Donny (Felicity Huffman), and their ineffectual neighbor, Del. (Ed Begly Jr.)
It is off-putting to hear Mamet's characteristic cadences used in a domestic drama. To watch a little boy engage in relentlessly stylized repartee with the initially distracting Ed Begly Jr. is surreal indeed.
Much of the first scene, in which the characters mostly sit around and talk about the child's refusal to sleep, seems almost a parody of Mamet's trademark style, and the audience cannot resist laughing watching the adults and the child struggle awkwardly to keep afloat in the ceaseless torrent of words.
As the play progresses, the actors are able to get a better hold on the rhythms of the dialogue. The words rocket form person to person as the characters desperately struggle to be heard and to fend off silence. Mamet's dialogue is like a spell, when it works right One is hypnotized, and can't help but hear what he wants emphasized. The characters babble on in a Beckett-like fashion about whatever comes to mind--an old photograph, a torn blanket, an impending camping trip with John and his absent father. As they ramble along, certain phrases stick out and become emblematic. Examining the photograph, Donny comments, "It all goes so quickly." Referring to a forgotten blanket, John asks "Why did you stop using it?" When it becomes clear that the father will not be coming home and has abandoned the family, Del says "Why would he want to do that?"
The fatalistic inability of the characters to understand or to control the events of their lives is expressed in these words--they pop out of the dialogue and steer one towards understanding, even when the sum of the conversation is obtuse. Through these moments of clarity, Mamet offers us clues to 'the cryptogram.'
The play becomes continually more perplexing. The second of the three scene play finds John sick, the mother desperate and Del fluttering about trying to soothe everyone. Communication seems more and more difficult for these characters, and their relationships are noticeably strained. John speaks in riddles. "In the history of things, maybe there are no such things as thought, we are just dreaming. How do we know the things we know?" As the dialogue hurls itself forward, statements keep surfacing which seem to be guideposts from the playwright.
All three actors seem to reach their stride in this second scene. Sheldon Dane delivers his lines with the steady assurance of a ten-year-old mystic. Felicity Huffman deftly portrays a woman hovering between control and breakdown. Ed Begly Jr., once he gets comfortable, evokes a seemingly passive character torn by anger and self-loathing.
In the third and final scene, the characters unravel to the point of near abstraction. Unable to find the absent father, John and Donny are moving, and Del arrives to make amends. John has become completely dissociated from the other characters, looking straight ahead into the audience, refusing to make eye contact, asking chilling questions with an eerie lack of emotion: "Do you ever think things?" "Do you ever wish that you could die?" The mother attempts a bit longer to deal with John but is ultimately too devastated by her husband's rejection and by her strange unreachable son. Del meanwhile floats around, resigned to his inability to have an impact on the situation.
With "the cryptogram" Mamet is presenting his audience with a new kind of puzzle. While the play lacks the compelling intensity of his earlier works such as "Glengary, Glenross" or the amazing "Oleanna," the intellectual challenge of sifting through the dialogue to try to hear what Mamet has to say is exciting. The actors, after some initial stumbling, carry off the piece with energy and subtlety. Presumably, since Mamet is directing, they are fulfilling whatever vision he had for the piece.
Don't go to "the cryptogram" expecting to be able to easily unravel the various levels of meaning. Understanding comes not when one is leaving the theater or even on the way home, but only through subsequent thought and analysis. "the cryptogram" fits well the description Winston Churchill once used for the Soviet Union--"a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."