A Puzzle of Portent From Mamet
( Newsday ) Jan Stuart; 07-01-1994
THE CRYPTOGRAM. World premiere of a play by David Mamet. Directed by
Gregory Mosher. Designed by Bob Crowley. Lighting design Rick Fisher. At
the Ambassador's Theater, London.
LONDON'S WEST Street should be renamed Riddle Alley. Just across from the St. Martin's Theater where Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" has been teasing brains for 42 years, David Mamet's "The Cryptogram"
received its world premiere on Wednesday night. Mamet's latest is a puzzlement on several counts, not the least of which is why anyone thought there was enough meat on this three-scene knucklebone to constitute a complete evening of theater. It's a play waiting to happen, with just enough sense of dread and cunning Mametian wordplay to keep us anchored.
The rattle of pre-publicity that attends any new Mamet work has made much of the fact that "The Cryptogram" takes the author of "Oleanna" a notable step further from his trademark fraternal milieu. His three characters - a child, a mother and a homosexual - suggest a compendium of "Speed the Plow" putdowns. That Mamet approaches these folks with as much empathy as he does is surprising; that he realizes them with so little depth is not.
The hero of this trio living in 1959 Chicago is a troubled 11-year-old boy named John (Danny Worters) who suffers of late from bad dreams and mysterious voices, which he claims to hear outside his bedroom door. John's mother Donny (the fine Lindsay Duncan, her taut brow a mask of bemused gravity) wavers between despair at her son's plight and impatience. Measured sympathy of another sort comes from Del (Britain's popular transvestite comic Eddie Izzard, making a potent dramatic debut), a gay friend of the family who schools John in analytical and observational skills, ostensibly so he can grow up and be a famous writer.
When poor John tells Del he can't sleep, Del counters, "What does it mean `I could not sleep?' It means nothing other than the meaning assigned to it."
Del's pretentious, not to say inappropriate, response typifies a play that applies a Socratic, metaphor-happy brush to a banal domestic canvas of infidelity and betrayal. Upheaval waits in the wings, and Mamet's characters orbit this impending disorder as if it is the only thing that gives them life. Each of them is in reach of an object hand-picked for portent and poetry value: a broken teacup, a pilot's knife, a torn wool coverlet. Not a cover, mind you, a coverlet.
By contrast, there is an unforced lyricism and genuine atmosphere in the Spartan design by two recent Tony winners: the nocturnal lighting of Rick Fisher ("An Inspector Calls") and the musty living room set from Bob Crowley ("Carousel"), with a dauntingly long staircase that accentuates the small John's isolation and anxiety.
Mamet has always shared a stylistic kinship with Harold Pinter (who staged the acclaimed West End production of "Oleanna"), and "The Cryptogram" is the playwright's most Pinteresque effort to date in its
simmering air of foreboding and its piquantly amusing half-thoughts. The most satisfying moment in the evening is a detour, really, as a disarmingly pie-eyed Izzard fumbles through a toast and ponders the benefits of inebriation. "You drink," he observes, "and when you remember again it's later on."
Director Gregory Mosher musters considerable tension with the minimalist material, achieving a fluidity of performance that eludes the author in his self-directed efforts ("Oleanna" and the film "House of Games"). Mosher knows how to take the clunkiness out of Mamet's conversational mannerisms, but neither he nor the actors know how to de-clunk the odd cliches that often give "The Cryptogram" the feel of a B-movie trailer. "I don't understand what's happening to me!" wails John. "Who am I?" asks Del, "Some poor queen who lives in a hotel, some silly old hotel."
Where is Bette Davis when we need her?