As soon as The Cryptogram’s first public performance ends, Michael Leon Drezner heads into the audience and asks his little sister if she liked the play. Before she can answer, he zooms her away for a backstage tour of the Studio Theatre. This display of normalcy is a relief to see—and almost shocking in light of the domestic horrors Drezner has just spent the last 68 minutes navigating. As John, the 10-year-old protagonist of David Mamet’s creepy play, he unravels his family’s sinister secrets and cracks its terrible code.

Drezner’s is not the usual kiddie role, as Cryptogram director Joy Zinoman will tell you over and over again. “Who would dream up a play that is this psychologically complex and abstract in its style, and have the leading communicator of the story be 10 years old?” she marvels at Mamet’s folly, before launching into how she sifted through a hundred possible Johns before settling on Drezner, a sixth-grader at Sidwell Friends who had only acted in school plays. Zinoman demanded that her John be someone “physically charming” and—above all else—intelligent, a child who would have no trouble separating Mamet’s dangerous fictional world from reality.

Luckily, Drezner is up to the task of balancing 40 hours of rehearsal a week with school and homework, creating the inner workings of this troubled boy onstage without letting the process taint his real life. He’s a kid who likes Star Wars comics and plays first base on his Little League team, but never forgets that acting in The Cryptogram is no joke. “It can’t get to me, or else I would, like, have a breakdown. [John]’s got such a horrible life. He has no support whatsoever. He can’t depend on anyone, and he doesn’t know how to handle himself. Nobody loves him,” Drezner says. And while that’s a true enough assessment of the character he plays, it’s a problem Drezner—at least judging from the audience’s response to his work—will never have.

—Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa