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The Cryptogram and The Old Neighborhood

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1999 • Volume 6 • ISSN 1095-9629




Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles. 13 February 1999.


Left to right: Robin Bartlett and Dennis Boutsikaris in
The Old Neighborhood, by David Mamet, directed by Michael Bloom.
The Geffen Playhouse 12 January - 14 February 1999.
Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The Geffen Playhouse of Los Angeles recently staged David Mamet’s The Cryptogram and The Old Neighborhood in repertory. John Arnone’s set, Christina Haatainen-Jones’s costumes, and Michael Bloom’s adept direction were very real pleasures. The foyer exhibit at the Geffen included a larger-than-life photo of the bearded author and large reproductions of Mamet's autobiographical essay The Rake, and the program included excerpts from three of Mamet’s personal essays, encouraging the audience to view the plays as slices from the author's past. This is the first time that any theater in the United States has staged the plays back-to-back, and the pairing of the two reveals a new direction in Mamet's oeuvre. Much like O’Neill in Long Day's Journey Into Night or Williams in The Glass Menagerie, Mamet is now willing to excavate the most intimate and unpleasant details of his familial past.

The Cryptogram is a claustrophobic portrait of a dysfunctional American family in the 1950s. Eschewing nostalgia, Mamet's domestic drama takes issue with the notion that the 1950s were a golden era of innocence and familial bliss; it presents a jaundiced view of the American family and the epoch that produced sitcoms like Father Knows Best and My Three Sons This play examines the adult world through the prism of childhood. John (Will Rothhaar), a precocious ten year-old boy, is waiting for his father, Robert, to return home; Donny (Christine Dunford), a desperate and unloved mother and Del (Ed Begley, Jr.), a gay family friend, attempt to shelter the young boy from the fact that his father may never return. However, John senses that Donny and Del are not telling him the "truth" and that his father is leaving the family.

The play’s title refers to the coded language that adults use in front of children. John understands that in parental communication, language is often employed with the intent to deceive. In an effort to combat linguistic deception, John uses household objects–a knife, a blanket, a picture, a candle–to communicate with the adults; these objects by implication express John's trauma and inner confusion. John finds a blanket in the attic and apologizes to Donny because he believes that he tore the blanket on a nail. However, she reassures him that the blanket was "torn years ago." This supposedly minor incident weighs on the child's mind and he continues to worry. John's anxiety reflects his own guilt, and his feelings of culpability become more acute as the play progresses.

In retrospect we recognize that Donny, much like John, senses Del’s duplicity, but she cannot prove it. This is where Begley and Dunford’s performances shine. Begley's manic Del is a liar who cannot lie very well. His body language and verbal miscues confirm that he is hiding something. Similarly, Dunford effectively conveys Donny’s obsessive desire to know the truth. Donny verbally prods Del until he cracks: we learn that Robert’s hunting knife is a cover for a trip to the woods that never took place and that Donny’s husband was actually having a tryst in Del’s apartment. When Del attempts to give the knife to John, we sense that he is uncertain about his role as a surrogate father. In the third act, we also learn that Bobby’s "big German knife," ostensibly a "war momento," is actually a knife purchased in London. Hence, the knife becomes a symbol of the father’s deception and his unsuccessful attempt to mask his inglorious past. The play ends with Del giving young John the knife. When he takes it and dashes up the stairs we are uncertain about what he is going to do with it: will he kill himself or will he adapt to the tragic situation?

The Cryptogram is a well-made-play in its dependence on the gradual disclosure of several secrets. However, as always, Mamet's dramaturgy cannot be neatly pigeon-holed. The "truth" actually leaves the audience with many questions: whose version of the "truth" do we trust and what if the "truth" does not make sense? This production was effective because Begley, Dunford and the young Rothhaar tap into the rich internal lives of their characters without going over-the-top. This is no small feat when one considers the play's emotional fireworks.

To make the play "more accessible," the Geffen provided post-performance discussions following each production. On the evening that I attended The Cryptogram, a large crowd remained in their seats and eagerly participated in a question and answer forum with the play’s Assistant Director, Adam Shive. The audience’s responses, which ranged from baffled to favorable, suggest that The Cryptogram is something of an acquired taste.

On the surface, The Old Neighborhood is more accessible than The Cryptogram. The play is comprised of three self-contained one-act plays–The Disappearance of the Jews (1982), Jolly (1989), and Deeny (1998). The figure of Bobby Gould is the narrative thread that connects the three. Like The Cryptogram, The Old Neighborhood is explicitly concerned with the past and how the past colors and influences one’s present behavior. However, The Old Neighborhood approaches the past from a different vantage point: adulthood. Bobby Gould (Dennis Boutsikaris), the play's middle-age protagonist, is in the process of leaving his wife. He returns to the Chicago of his youth to reconnect with his family and his Jewish roots. In The Disappearance of the Jews he reunites with his high school buddy Joey (expertly played by David Warshofsky). The two characters indulge in the male banter that has become Mamet’s theatrical signature, discussing old friends, "Jewish broads" and synagogues. Everything is relatively light until Joey dares mention Bobby's marriage. After several verbal eruptions, we learn that Bobby regrets marrying "a shiska," one who once remarked that "If you [the Jews] have been persecuted so long, eh, you must have brought it on yourself." This comment prompts a tirade from Joey. His emotional condemnation of anti-Semitism quickly becomes an attack on gentile culture. Warshofsky handles the emotional transition with skill and clarity. His oddly presentational approach in the scene–many of his lines are played to the audience–could fall flat, but it doesn't because he is so engaging. When Joey dreams of forsaking the modern world for the simple life of a Polish shtetl, we, like Bobby, know that he is certainly misguided, but we still empathize with him. Joey’s bathetic musings are wonderfully humorous and his longings for a Jewish utopia reveal his frustration and vulnerability.

In the next one-act play, Jolly, we learn exactly why Bobby left Chicago and "his people." Bobby’s reunion with his emotionally troubled sister Jolly (Robin Bartlett) and her passive and supportive husband Carl (Ed Begley, Jr.) quickly turns into a litany of confessions and relived trauma. Recounting the familial conflicts which continue to torment and divide the family, Jolly reenacts the contentious battle over their mother’s will, the denial of her rightful share, and the family’s rejection of Carl. In a revealing moment, Jolly voices her utter contempt for her step-siblings and goes on to remark about their parents, "they never loved us." Barlett’s performance, replete with compulsive pacing and anxious gesturing, suggests that her mind is constantly sifting through the emotional refuse of her past. After spending a mere thirty minutes with Jolly, we are familiar with the most intimate and tragic aspects of her appalling childhood. What is remarkable about Jolly is the play’s compelling mixture of humor and pathos. Bartlett and Boutsikaris give stellar performances. They manage to transform the grim subject matter into robust dark comedy.

Bobby’s last encounter in Deeny is certainly The Old Neighborhood’s most elusive. Bobby reunites with his old girlfriend Deeny (Christine Dunford) and toys with the idea of resuming their relationship after some fifteen years of separation. Deeny’s ramblings about gardening, sexual intercourse, self-mutilation and subatomic particles are not as meaningless as they appear to be. She is actually describing her wish to reunite with Bobby. The play ends with the two going their separate ways. Bobby’s inability to connect with his former lover and family is deeply disturbing because he realizes that the myths of his past will not provide any emotional shelter.

University of Southern California