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The Cryptogram

The Cryptogram is one of Mamet's lesser efforts, interesting mostly for that part of the play that describes a boy's experience with betrayal. (Steppenwolf's Newsletter tied John's world directly to his creator's by quoting John Lahr's reference to him as "Mamet's surrogate."


By David Mamet.

Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago. 16 June 1996.

Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company closed its 1995-96 Studio Season with the Midwest premiere of The Cryptogram in a production that revealed a number of conflicting ways of dealing with Mamet's characteristic ambiguities. For example, entering the theatre, the audience could pick up a flyer for the production that explained simply what The Cryptogram i s all about: "Journey from a night in 1959 back to childhood to the exact moment of innocence lost, when the world is, in an instant, a dangerous place." So much for the mysteries of a text, one whose title seems to invite the audience to solve its "code" or "hidden significance."

Later, in the transition between the second and third scenes, ambiguity provoked confusion. Two stagehands were seen collecting and removing the furniture in Donny's house, showing the impending change in her life and that of her young son John, as well as indicating the passage of a month's time. Curiously, John sees the stagehands too, from the top of the high staircase that filled visually a large portion of the set. Was ambiguity being purposely created at this point in the production by deliberately having a character acknowledge (as he did not at the earlier scene change) the theatre event as artifice?

To be sure, at many times during the performance the audience was presented with information and images that raised questions. For example, why did the downstage door frame have no door? Why was there no light source in the living room? Why and how did John get the letter to deliver (belatedly) to his mother announcing the abandonment by his father? Was the abandonment the mysterious "third misfortune" that John asked about? Who did take the much discussed photograph of Donny, Robert, and their friend Del? Why is it important to have a photo of World War 11 pilots displayed prominently on the end table, along with a pipe, both of which were ignored in a room otherwise bare of any furnishings? What could Donny mean when she erupted in anger at all the men who betrayed her in her life when it appears she has lived happily married for about twenty years until the abandonment by Robert (they have known each other since before the war)?

The eighty-minute performance concluded with the surprising sense of how ordinary a play The Cryptogram is, despite its ambiguities and confusions. In fact, by not concerning ourselves with making sense of a lot of things, we would be much entertained by a play that, simply, concerns the sad results on a family and a friendship of self-absorption and betrayal. Seen in this way, the play is not about itself, is not about the reiterated slippage of memory in people's lives, and is only distractingly about "the meaning of things" that is frequently mentioned, to no useful purpose at all. The Cryptogram concerns three people who are caught up in each other's lives, and who are unable to make much sense of their relationships. "The loss of innocence" proving a "dangerous world" seems too great a claim to make for a play whose focus is only one-third about a child's limited perspective on the world.

Setting ambiguity aside, The Cryptogram does not lack the thematic and linguistic characteristics of Mamet's other writing, but it is a distinctly low-voltage effort save for the moments in scene three when the subject of betrayal was confronted. Only when Donny understood how Del was blaming her for his duplicity, and when she accused John at the play's conclusion of breaking his promise to go to bed, did her voice take on emotional coloration. Otherwise, with a cast comprised of a boy, a gay man, and a straight woman, the script lacks any of Mamet's usual sexual tension amid his explosive, enclosed environments.

Marc Vann's portrayal of Del was especially good in showing the care and love he has for the boy early in the play, and Amy Morton as Donny was fine in signaling her later dislocation and hurt. But the two adults were denied a deeper acquaintance with tragedy they might have manifested, and the child evoked concern without compassion. Donny's sudden insults of Del (calling him first a "fairy" and then a "faggot"), potentially shattering, lacked the impact or resonance such surprising cruelty might naturally evoke.

Mamet's language of slangy fragment and overlap produced an additional problem whenever John, a young boy, must speak with more rhythmic street savvy than he could possibly have acquired. Zaks Rubin's performance exacerbated the difficulty of youthful actors who create character out of the overdetermined patterns the director demands; throughout, the directing by Scott Zigler showed more discipline than imagination. Interestingly, much of the first scene suggested an embrace of the surreal: disjunctive speech, bare white walls, odd and unexplained pieces of plot and setting. Surely, a fascinating drama could be imagined issuing from this beginning, but the style was not asserted with continuity or conviction. Thus, when John disappeared from the stage early in scene two, The Cryptogram settled into the engaging domestic drama it really wants to be, at which point the play became a more successful though less substantial dramatic effort.

The Cryptogram is one of Mamet's lesser efforts, interesting mostly for that part of the play that describes a boy's experience with betrayal. (Steppenwolf's Newsletter tied John's world directly to his creator's by quoting John Lahr's reference to him as "Mamet's surrogate.") The play concluded with John at the top of the stairs with the knife, heading up to the attic where all kinds of betrayals reside. Will he come to harm? We don't know. We are left detached, mulling over the result of emotional self absorption and unintended cruelty, and thinking that Mamet is best when he evokes a more sustained and engaged consideration of human existence than he provides in The Cryptogram. Absent that, his play and its production lack the courage of their confusions and become too ordinary for even Mamet's ambiguous vision of the human condition.


University of Wisconsin - Madison