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The Cryptogram

Directed by Scott Zigler, The Cryptogram ran for three weeks during spring 1996 on the Neuhaus Arena Stage, a small theatre in the round generally used by the Alley for plays with few characters and a simple set design.


By David Mamet

Alley Theatre, Houston. 16 March 1996

Samuel Beckett looms behind all of Mamet's plays, but perhaps none of them registers his influence, and especially that of Waiting for Godot , as much as The Cryptogram . In this play it is not only Mamet's language which recalls Beckett— spare, often uncommunicative, strangely Iyrical—but also the predicament in which Mamet's characters find themselves. When the play begins, Donny, her ten-year-old son John, and her friend Del are awaiting the arrival of Robert, Donny's husband and John's father, who is expected to take John camping the next day; when the play ends, one month later, they are still waiting, but realize that Robert is never going to return. Over the course of the play, however, the lives of these three characters change dramatically, leaving no doubt that nothing is the same as when the play began. Donny learns of her husband's decision to leave her for another woman, Del admits to Donny his complicity in her husband's betrayal, and John's sheltered world is shattered by uncertainty, ambiguity, and physical danger. This play is compelling in large part because, while it maintains a certain degree of abstraction, thereby inviting all sorts of schematic interpretations, it also possesses enough specificity to focus our interest on the individual characters and the traumas they endure.

The Alley Theatre's fine production of The Cryptogram ran for three weeks during spring 1996 on the Neuhaus Arena Stage, a small theatre in the round generally used by the Alley for plays with few characters and a simple set design. The Alley has developed a solid reputation where Mamet is concerned; the company's productions in recent years of Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow were both quite competent, the latter occasionally dazzling. Although the company sometimes brings in veterans of Mamet's plays for these productions, the resident actors more than hold their own with Mamet's dialogue—no small feat. None of the actors in The Cryptogram were Alley residents, nor had they any previous experience with Mamet. The director, however, was Scott Zigler, who had served as Associate Director of the American premiere of the play at the American Repertory Theatre. Kevin Rigdon, whose credits also include previous Mamet productions, designed the set and the lighting.

The intimacy of the Neuhaus stage was well suited to the play's single setting, a family's living room. The furniture in the room consisted of a little table and three large chairs, each of them an earthy color, so that the warm, comfortable atmosphere suggested by the physical environment contrasted with the menacing atmosphere suggested by most of the dialogue, and with the hidden, spookily lit space beyond the top of the stairway extending from one corner of the stage to the edge of the theatre. The colors of the furniture might have also signified the repressive domesticity associated with the 1950s, soon to be disrupted by the events both within the play and beyond the confines of this house.

Jimmy Fanelli, a sixth-grader who already has a considerable list of credits, played John, seemingly with ease. He displayed all of this character's essential traits—the restlessness of a child unable to sleep, the frenetic anticipation of the upcoming trip with his father, the vulnerability exposed by the emotional instability of the adult characters, and the inquisitiveness of a prodigy. Fanelli's manner of ascending and descending the stairs (John is the only character who uses them) expressed the fluctuations in John's mood without ever appearing exaggerated. Fanelli was certainly the most surprising aspect of the production, since one does not expect such a convincing performance from such a young actor. As Del, Michael De Vries also turned in a sound performance, making his character appear both contemptible and pathetic. His comic timing in the play's second scene was especially effective, bringing out the dark humor in Del and Donny's stumbling attempt to locate profundity in their miserable circumstances.

Donny was played by Kathleen O'Grady. Of the three actors, she seemed the least comfortable with the rhythms of Mamet's dialogue, but she nevertheless gave a satisfying performance. Although O'Grady appeared a little too frazzled in the first scene, she struck the right emotional pitch in the third, when Donny is no longer able to control her impatience with John and lets loose her anger at Del. If Donny's language in this final scene, now coarse and studded with derogatory epithets, starts to resemble that of the tough-talking male characters from some of Mamet's earlier plays, this fact may allow us to see this kind of language in a new light—not as an inherently masculine way of verbalizing one's thoughts, but rather as a manifestation of the desire for the world to submit to the simple definitions and immutable distinctions that are all this language is capable of articulating. What gives The Cryptogram , as well as much of Mamet's other work, its pathos is that the characters seem to realize that things are always more complicated than such language would have us believe.


Rice University