Betrayal begets betrayal in The Cryptogram, David Mamet’s sometimes unsettling but ultimately unsatisfying memory play, which finds a ’50s nuclear family trembling on the verge of fission. The ugly chain of disloyalty engenders something else, too, for the vulnerable principal character, though whether it’s self-awareness or an urge toward self-destruction remains an open question when the lights come up.
Like earlier Mamet works, this exercise in verbal gymnastics is elegantly, excruciatingly self-conscious in the way it uses language—constantly stopping, re-starting, stuttering, repeating itself, never precisely replicating the way we human animals actually talk to each other but instead echoing, distorting, exaggerating the halting, painful rhythms of our everyday speech. (One rapid-fire exchange between mother and boy, getting ready for a fishing trip in the woods: “See if you find any things up there.” “Things.” “…you might need to take.” “…things I might need to take up.” “Mm.” “Or that he might need.” “That’s right.” “…or that you forgot.” “Yes.” “To pack.” “Yes. Would you do that?” “Of course.”)
What’s missing is the blistering, constipated vulgarity and rage (and, sadly, most of the poetry) that mark Mamet’s best plays, especially American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. What’s new is the dewy-eyed, self-pitying look this usually cynical playwright—celebrated as well as reviled for his coldly outraged examinations of brutal behavior and questionable motivations in such plays as Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow—takes at his own history and the foundations of his worldview.
At The Cryptogram’s center is a Mamet stand-in, 10-year-old John (Michael Leon Drezner), a bright, anxiously inquisitive boy who’s looking for reassurance about the order of things and his place in it, but who finds only confirmation that the world isn’t as neatly arranged and firmly anchored as children always want it to be. There’s not much of a plot, and what there is is fairly predictable: When his father fails to return home one night, John’s harried mother Donny (Anna Bergman) and her nebbishy gay best friend Del (Scott Sparks) worry over the reason until the ugly truth comes out: There’s another woman, and Dad won’t be coming back.
As it transpires, Del has had a hand in the father’s treachery. (Why? Possibly because Del, the awkward librarian, has always had a thing for Dad, the virile war hero? It’s one potential answer to the puzzling question of why the play makes such an issue of Del’s homosexuality. Then again, maybe that’s just another manifestation of Mamet’s old-fashioned notions about masculinity.)
Donny, deserted, angry, and at wits’ end, doesn’t know how to handle her own feelings, much less deal with the breathless, incoherent reaction of her emotionally demanding son—so she gives up, turns on him in a moment of uncontrolled, selfish temper, demanding discipline and conformity despite the confusion and domestic chaos surrounding them. “The man said goodnight to you,” she shrieks. “Come back down and tell the man you’re sorry….I’m speaking to you, John. Don’t stand there so innocently. I’ve asked you a question. Do you want me to go mad? Is that what you want?” Abandoned herself, she in turn abandons John, leaving him to find his own answers or fail trying. The oddly lurid conclusion involves a huge knife, once a nearly sacred talisman of the bonds of family and friendship but now debased by the progress of events; the final, almost ludicrously melodramatic image suggests that John will have trouble adjusting to the new paradigm.
That’s pretty much it: Mamet wants to let us in on the shocking news that nobody, really, can be wholly trusted, that parents aren’t the gods children expect them to be, that selfish people can ruin your day, if not your life, if you put too much faith in their dependability, and that nothing about the universe is as immutable as myth would have it. Well, yes—and?
And nothing. These characters, John included, are so busy wallowing in their misfortunes that they don’t recognize that the world still has plenty to offer those who can learn to cope with those realities. As if the adult characters weren’t annoying enough, Sparks (a maddeningly fidgety actor) and Bergman seem intent on finding operatic drama in their self-absorption; to say they overplay things would be, well, an understatement. Drezner is somewhat more appealing, unpretentious and capable, but also occasionally a little bland. Studio Theatre’s moody, stylish production gives plenty of hints about the answers Mamet wants us to find in his sociological puzzle: Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting is ominously angular, Helen Huang’s set a nearly monochromatic palette of grays and wan browns, and Gil Thompson’s sound punctuates the spaces between scenes with the eeriest bits of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish. All this is probably as it should be, and yet it only makes Mamet’s conclusions more obvious. What’s most obvious at the end of a long 70 minutes: There’s not really much to be decoded in The Cryptogram. There’s just a lot of questionable psychological muck to wade through.