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SOURCE: "Betrayals," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 23, August 1, 1994, pp. 70-3.
[Lahr is a prizewinning American critic, nonfiction writer, playwright, novelist, biographer, and editor. In the review below, he offers a highly favorable assessment of The Cryptogram, lauding the work's dramatic intensity and focus on betrayal, death, and emotional abuse.]
David Mamet, like the characters he puts onstage, tells us only so much about himself, and no more. We know, for instance, that he likes tricksters and magic. We know that he enjoys guys' things, like hunting and poker and cigars. We also know that he's divorced, and that, like any divorced parent, he has had to live with the grief of imposing on his children the bewildering pain of separation which he felt when his own parents divorced. In "The Rake," the first chapter of a 1992 memoir entitled The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions, Mamet has provided a rare and chilling snapshot of himself and his sister, Lynn, growing up with their new stepfather in a Chicago suburb. Mamet dredges up from the mystery of childhood a few images and scraps of half-understood conversation which have etched themselves on his imagination. He tells of his sister's hearing raised voices and following them down the corridor to the master bedroom, where she pushed open the door to see their mother coiled in a fetal position on the floor of the closet "moaning and crying and hugging herself," and their tyrannical stepfather gesturing toward the bed, on which the children's grandfather, their mother's father, was slumped. "Say the words," the stepfather was saying to the grandfather. "Say the words, Jack. Please. Just say you love her." Mamet writes, "And my grandfather said, 'I can't.'" Mamet's sister was hit in the face with a hairbrush for bearing witness to this humiliation. Such bleak and brutal terrain—full of cloaked threat and blighted feeling—is a large part of Mamet's emotional inheritance. He survived to dramatize its wary and perverse psychological climate—a ferocious, repressed atmosphere in which, out of fear and impotence and shame, people become willed strangers to themselves, and in which the cunning thrust and parry of language becomes a carapace that cuts them off from both the world and their own murky feelings.
The Cryptogram, Mamet's newest play, which recently had its world premiére at the Ambassadors Theatre, in London, is a difficult but important drama, in which Mamet works his way back to childhood—specifically, to that irrevocable, buried moment in a child's life when the safety net of the parental embrace collapses, and the world, once full of blessing, is suddenly full of danger. The play, which consists of three terse scenes, takes place in 1959 (Mamet was born in 1947), and Mamet's surrogate, John, is "about ten." Bob Crowley's beautifully painted set is dominated by a huge stairway, which winds its way up toward the flies, and a backcloth of behemoth zones of blue-green and charcoal gray separated by a band of pink. Like a Rothko painting (which the backcloth resembles), the play is about the resonance of contradictory and puzzling emotional intensities; and the staircase becomes an image of the almost unbridgeable space between the muffled grownup world downstairs and the child's insecure purdah upstairs.
Mamet foreshadows the play's moral debate in the opening beats. Here, in Gregory Mosher's vivid production, John's first words are "I couldn't find 'em." John (superbly played by the precocious Richard Claxton, who alternates in the role with the equally adroit Danny Worters) is apparently talking about a pair of slippers he has packed for a camping trip with his father, which is scheduled for the next day; but what John really can't find in the environment of subterfuge and coded speech which engulfs him is the reality of his parents and of his own emotional life. John can't sleep. This is a familiar enough childhood complaint, and the family friend Del (well played by the pudgy, weak-faced comedian Eddie Izzard) tries to jolly him out of it in a cozy late-night man-to-man. "Where were we?" Del asks. John answers with a formal phrase obviously borrowed from earlier arguments with the adults. "Issues of sleep," he says. The phrase turns panic into a debating point, but we soon learn that John's sleep-lessness is chronic. "Every night. Every night. There's some excuse. Some reason," says Donny, John's mother, played by the subtle Lindsay Duncan, whose pale elegance here disguises a steely detachment. Despite Del's special pleading and the excitement of the upcoming trip, Donny wants John upstairs and in bed. "Why aren't you asleep?" is her entrance line. John has picked up some anxiety that the household refuses to acknowledge. "Why isn't Dad home?" he asks Del, who takes the conversation in another direction. Later in the scene, John tells his mother, "I want to wait til he comes home." His request is stone-walled by apparent reasonableness. "Well, yes, I'm sure you do," Donny says. "But you need your sleep. And if you don't get it, you're not …"
Sleeplessness, not John's fear, is what Del and Donny want to contain. No one deals with John's feelings or tries to alleviate them. The audience starts to feel a certain highly charged and unspoken frustration—a kind of emotional static. Mamet puts the audience where the child sits, taking the characters at face value, only to have its will to believe confounded by those characters' mixed messages. Psychological truth is never acknowledged. In fact, it is scrambled—like a cryptogram—so that everything means something else. The play's uncluttered living room, composed merely of two sofas covered with red blankets, becomes an impenetrable landscape of denial. Mamet announces the pattern brilliantly, with the offstage crash of Donny's teapot, which precedes her first entrance. "I'm alright!" Donny shouts from the wings. "I'm alright!" Clearly she's not all right, and Del uses the shattered teapot to draw an avuncular parallel between the anticipated camping trip and John's edginess:
DEL: Well, there you go.
DEL: … a human being …
JOHN: … yes?
DEL: … cannot conceal himself.
JOHN: that, that's, that's an example?
DEL: Well, hell, look at it: anything, when it is changed … any, um um, "upheaval," do you see? All of a sudden …
A broken teapot an "upheaval"? Del seems to be trying to ascribe John's sleeplessness to the prospect of a change of scenery, but his stumbling and inappropriate choice of words is confusing. Something—everything—is being concealed. But what? Nothing is ever directly stated. Even John's straightforward question about his father—"Where is he?"—gets a confused and confusing answer from Donny. "I don't know. Yes, I do, yes. He's at the Office. And he'll be home soon." She seems to know, and yet not to know, that something is awry. John's situation is never resolved; his anxieties and his questions are never answered. When John is sent to tidy up the attic, and reappears with a blanket—a totemic family object in which he was wrapped as a baby—the blanket turns out to be torn. John thinks he has torn it, but Donny knows he hasn't. Even this projection of John's unspoken fear of having caused a rip in the fabric of the family is muddied by Del. "Because we think a thing is one way does not mean that this is the way that this thing must be," Del says. The evasions are confusing, and are meant to be. John's caretakers interrupt him, and confound him with doubletalk. At the end of the scene, John's worst fears are confirmed. A note somehow materializes. "When did this get here?" Donny asks, and after she's read it she sends John to bed. "Alright. I understand. I'm going," he says, knowing, without quite knowing, that the worst has happened. His father will not be going on the camping trip, or coming home. The dialogue that ends the first scene has a flat, matter-of-fact tone, but in the subsequent scenes it turns out to be part of a whole narrative of fraudulence:
DEL: What is it?
DONNY: It's a letter. (Pause.) Robert's leaving me.
DEL: He's leaving you. (Pause.) Why would he want to do that …?
"I thought that maybe there was nothing there," John says to Donny at the beginning of Scene 2, explaining a kind of brainstorm about the nature of reality. And, of course, he's right: what Mamet is about to unravel is the charade of human connection. John is starting to fragment before our eyes, and his night sweats—in this case, voices and spectres that accompany his fear of abandonment and his sense of annihilation—are now coming out in his questions. "And how do we know the things we know?" he says. "And, and we don't know what's real. And all we do is say things." What Del says when he enters is that he has looked all over town for Robert and can't find him. He brings medicine for John. (The medicine that John really needs is love, but this is never offered.) John finally breaks down and buries his head in his mother's lap. "What's happening to me?" he says. Donny embraces him. "It's alright," she says "Hush. You go to bed. It's alright. John. Shh. You've only got a fever. Shhh." It's a fierce and ironic moment: an act of violence couched in the language of love. Donny acts as if the truth would kill her son, but what's killing him is untruth.
The truth—a network of betrayals—is hard to admit or discover. Once John is safety upstairs, Del opens a bottle of whiskey, and he and Donny toast their friendship—a kind of strangulated toast, in which Del, who is gay but later confesses love for Donny, angles clumsily for some acknowledgment of deeper feeling from her:
DONNY: May We Always be as …
DONNY: As …
DEL: Unified …
DONNY: Well, let's pick something more moving than that.
DEL: Alright … be. be. be. be. be-nighted? No, that's not the word I want to use … be-trothed …? No.
DONNY: Close …
DONNY: Close to each other.
DEL: As we happen to be right now.
Within a few minutes, though, Del is caught out in a lie about a knife he has used to open the whiskey. He claims that Robert gave it to him on a camping trip the previous week, but Donny has seen it more recently, in the attic. This leads to the revelation that Del lent Robert his apartment for a tryst and used the camping trip as a decoy—a collusion for which he was rewarded with the knife, Robert's cherished "war memento," which proves later to be as inauthentic as Del's shows of sincerity. Del, it turns out, is caught between an allegiance to the absent Robert and a yearning for Donny, who flirts with him but is finally uninterested. The audience hardly has time to tally up the extent of his fabrications. Del, who planted the "Dear Donny" letter, has known all along about Robert's adultery and abandonment of his family. Del's badinage with John, the story about looking for Robert, the toast to Donny and friendship—all are flimflam. "I'm sorry that it came out like this," he says to her. Then, having deliberately lied to Donny, he proceeds to lie to himself. "But we can't always choose the …" These revelations are interrupted by John's returning from upstairs to recount his own revelation: "I'm perfectly alone." And he is.
We see just how alone John is in the last, and best, scene, which takes place a month later, with Donny and John packing up to leave the house. Here, especially, Lindsay Duncan—one of England's finest actresses—brings Donny into bold, monstrous relief. John has suicide on his mind. "Do you ever wish that you could die?" he asks his mother, who replies ambivalently, "How can I help you, John?" She is, as Mamet shows, killing him slowly with kindness. "Things occur," she tells him. "And the meaning of them … the meaning of them … is not clear." But meaning, we see, is being consciously and unconsciously subverted. "If I could find one man," Donny bleats to Del, who has returned with the knife to "attune" for his sins. "In my life. Who would not betray me." Donny's rancor has a self-hypnotic power, but in fact Donny has betrayed John and Del, just as Del has betrayed Donny and John; and Robert, it turns out, has betrayed all three. When John appears on the stairway to interrupt her aria of victimization. Donny turns on her boy with unbridled fury. "Do you have no feelings?" she says. "I don't CARE. Go away. Leave me. Do you hear? You lied. You lied to me. I love you, but I can't like you. I'm sorry." Of course, it's Donny (and the other adults) who has lied to John; but John stands there, bewildered, trying vainly to make himself heard above Donny's double binds. All he wants is the blanket—his security blanket—but it has been packed. In a gesture typical of the adults' psychological obtuseness, Del gives John the knife to open the package. John, who has already broadcast suicidal thoughts, is called to attention on the stairway by Donny; she doesn't want to disarm him but, instead, to accuse him furiously of doing to her what she in fact is doing to him. "What are you standing there for?" she says. "Can't you see that I need comfort? Are you blind? Are you blind? That you treat me like an animal? What must I do?" It is a searing moment of emotional abuse. At the finale, John is looking down over the bannister at Donny and Del. He flicks the knife. The blade jolts into view with a startling thwack—a chilling sound that holds out the promise, as the lights fade, of murderous fury directed at John fade, of murderous fury directed at John himself or at the world.
Mamet chose to attack the world, and The Cryptogram goes some way toward illuminating the source of the cruelty and faithlessness that his characters generally find in it. The shifting ground of the play makes it hard to engage with, but its aftershock is enormous. The Cryptogram may be short, but it is not miniature. The oblique, brilliant dialogue is not underwritten, nor are the characters unexplored. With remarkable concision and insight, Mamet has mapped out the dynamics of a soul murder. This daring, dark, complex play got respectful though mixed notices in London, but I suspect that in time it will take its place among Mamet's major works.
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David Mamet The Cryptogram
Award: OBIE Award for Best Play
(Full name David Alan Mamet) Born in 1947, Mamet is an American playwright, screenwriter, novelist, essayist, memoirist, and author of children's books.
For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 15, 34, and 46.
The Cryptogram (1994) focuses on the theme of betrayal and continues Mamet's innovative use of dialogue as a means of creating and representing conflict. Set in the late 1950s, the play depicts a month in the lives of a precocious ten-year-old named John, his mother Donny, his father Robert, and a family friend named Del. The play opens with John unable to fall asleep, too excited about an impending camping trip with his father. It is soon revealed that Robert, who never appears onstage, has abandoned his wife and child, and that Del has assisted in his deceptions. Struggling with the emotional consequences of Robert's departure and the nature of their own friendship, Del and Donny are unable or unwilling to meet John's most basic needs. Fearing that the truth would be too overwhelming, they avoid John's questions, which only increases his anxiety and sense of isolation.
Emphasizing issues of betrayal, abandonment, emotional abuse, and childhood angst, The Cryptogram has received mixed reviews. Mamet's use of language—which is marked by repetitiveness, interruptions, and long pauses—has been variously assessed by critics. While some commentators have faulted the minimalism of the dialogue as evasive, stilted, and fragmentary, others, such as Jack Kroll, have noted that the cryptic nature of the play reveals the characters' muddled perceptions of their world and their subsequent search for meaning and emotional stability. Kroll observed that "as we listen to [John] try to bring his broken world to order we realize that Mamet's language is at bottom a child's lingo, the trial-and-error, stop-and-start, nonresponsive speech tactic of kids. It's the sound of tainted innocence." Reviewers have also acknowledged the importance of The Cryptogram in Mamet's body of work, noting its autobiographical influences and disturbing portrait of the effects of divorce on families; they have particularly cited the emotional shock generated in the play's final scenes. As John Lahr has asserted: "With remarkable concision and insight, Mamet has mapped out the dynamics of a soul murder."
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SOURCE: A review of The Cryptogram, in The North American Review, Vol. CCLXXIX, No. 6, November-December, 1994, p. 51.
[In the following review, King provides a negative assessment of The Cryptogram.]
In London's West End, David Mamet's Cryptogram had its world premiere. Set in Chicago in 1959, the piece centers around the anxieties of John, a ten-year-old boy. The clues in character, time and place all point to a personal allusion in the coded title—Mamet must be revealing something about himself. His director of twenty years standing, Gregory Mosher, claims not to have raised the question; after all, he says, "The pleasure of the play lies not, of course, in whether the young boy's journey was Mamet's, but in whether it is ours." The Cryptogram runs for under seventy minutes, a brief journey at best; two of the three characters deliver set speeches at a high emotional level, enough to measure acting but not enough to equal a play.
In each of the three scenes, the boy, John, can't sleep. At first, he is excited in anticipation of the next day's outing with his father; the curtain lines to the end of scene one, however, tip us off to expect a less pleasant revelation. His mother reads a note and says, "Robert's leaving me," and her friend Del replies, "Why would he want to do that?" At the opening of scene two, the young boy is speculating on the nature of reality and the meaning of meaning, Del having helped him earlier with "Words can mean what you want them to." With John upstairs, Del comes to realize that a knife given to him by Robert was bought on the street after the war and was a payoff to him, a self-styled "sad queen," for letting Robert use his room for an affair. Robert has deceived all of them. At the very end of the play, John stops half way up the long flight of stairs that rises right to left against the stage's back wall; he opens the knife by letting the blade drop. His last words reveal some dark anxiety about the voices he hears as he would sleep: "They're calling my name." Some darkly creative power must be waiting to shape his future; armed with a parachutist's escape knife, he will presumably confront his destiny.
"Each of us is alone," Donny tells her son in the third and last scene. The Cryptogram is too slight to raise such generalities above bumper-sticker level and too single-minded to question their validity in the language of the stage. The actors are given little more than try-out monologues, preludes to a real part. Unless Mamet expands this piece into a play, be warned. With his reputation, the enthusiasm of some reviewers, the part for a young boy, only two other characters and a single set, The Cryptogram could pop up in regional theaters for several years.
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Lakeboat (drama) 1970
Duck Variations (drama) 1972
∗Sexual Perversity in Chicago (drama) 1974
Squirrels (drama) 1974
American Buffalo (drama) 1975
Reunion (drama) 1976
Dark Pony (drama) 1977
A Life in the Theatre (drama) 1977
The Revenge of the Space Pandas, or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock (drama for children) 1977
The Water Engine: An American Fable (drama) 1977
The Woods (drama) 1977
Mr. Happiness (drama) 1978
Lone Canoe, or the Explorer (musical) 1979
The Sanctity of Marriage (drama) 1979
Shoeshine (drama) 1979
The Postman Always Rings Twice [adaptor; from the novel by James M. Cain] (screenplay) 1981
Edmond (drama) 1982
The Verdict [adaptor; from the novel by Barry Reed] (screenplay) 1982
Glengarry Glen Ross (drama) 1983
The Cherry Orchard [adaptor; from the play by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1985
Prairie du chien (drama) 1985
The Shawl (drama) 1985
The Untouchables (screenplay) 1986
Writing in Restaurants (essays) 1986
†House of Games (film) 1987
Speed-the-Plow (drama) 1988
†Things Change [with Shel Silverstein] (film) 1988
Uncle Vanya [adpator; from the play by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1988
Some Freaks (essays) 1989
We're No Angels (screenplay) 1989
Three Sisters [adaptor; from the play by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1990
†Homicide (film) 1991
The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions (memoirs) 1992
Glengarry Glen Ross (screenplay) 1992
Hoffa (screenplay) 1992
Oleanna (drama) 1992
The Cryptogram (drama) 1994
†Oleanna (film) 1994
Vanya on 42nd Street (screenplay) 1994
The Village (novel) 1994
A Whore's Profession (notes and essays) 1994
Passover (novella) 1995
∗This play was adapted by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue for the 1986 film About Last Night.
†Mamet both wrote and directed these films. Bracketed information refers to screenwriting credit.
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SOURCE: "Mamet in a Bleak Living Room of Childhood," in The New York Times, February 10, 1995, p. C3.
[Canby is a novelist, playwright, and film critic. Here, he offers a highly favorable assessment of The Cryptogram.]
The Cryptogram, David Mamet's spooky, very good new play, is elliptical but far less minimal than it initially looks. It's stuffed with the emotional bric-a-brac that leaves permanent scars on children, splits husbands from wives and rests lifelong friendships.
Under Mr. Mamet's direction The Cryptogram had its American premiere here on Wednesday night at the C. Walsh Theater. Though the American Repertory Theater's home is the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, it's presenting the play at the smaller theater in Boston, just behind the State House, as part of its New Stages '95 series. The Cryptogram, which has three characters and runs a scant 75 minutes without intermission, should be something of a coup for the group, which presented the first production of Mr. Mamet's Oleanna in 1992.
The new work doesn't have the topical kick of Oleanna, the temper-testing box-office hit about sexual harassment. Instead, it's a characteristically condensed Mamet consideration of matters that seem both more timeless and, in view of the playwright's stories about his own hair-raising childhood, more personal.
The Cryptogram takes place in a living room, which, as designed by John Lee Beatty, is a bleak commentary on every television sitcom set you have every seen. This living room, with the obligatory stairway at the back, looks as if it were in a permanent state of dismantlement, awaiting the movers. It contains one rump-sprung sofa and one easy chair with an ottoman. Nothing else, No lamps, no pictures on the walls. There aren't even any visible windows or doors.
Yet two floors above, there's an attic that, from what we hear, is stuffed with things hidden, stored, forgotten or abandoned: clothes, faded photographs, tackle boxes, old blankets. As various objects are retrieved from the attic during the play, it becomes evident that it not only is the repository of shared possessions but also functions as the collective unconscious of the characters. They are 10-year-old John (Shelton Dane), his mother, Donny (Felicity Huffman), and the family's best friend, Del (Ed Begley Jr.). Next to the boy, the most important figure in the piece is his father, Robert, who, having just abandoned his family, remains unseen.
Donny is a well-meaning but chilly woman who is furious when she learns her husband has departed, though not, it seems, totally surprised. Del, a feckless and aging librarian, a homosexual without any apparent social life of his own, has been Donny and Robert's pal since high school. He lives in a hotel room but, for lack of any impulse to do otherwise, hangs around their house. As things turn out, we learn that Robert has been using Del as casually as he has used Donny and the boy.
Young John is the play's focal point. He's an astonishing character. Not in any contemporary stage literature that I know has childhood been as movingly evoked as it is in The Cryptogram, John is certainly not an average child, but he's not necessarily some budding genius of a playwright. He's a particular child whose loneliness and prescience about doom give his mind a special alertness.
John is the kind of boy who's fascinated by the concept of thought. What are thoughts? Why do thoughts keep him awake? Do thoughts make real something that is dreaded? It isn't long before John is wondering aloud whether he's the dreamer or the dream.
He's the principal victim when Robert walks out on Donny. His mother is not a wicked woman, but she's so devastated by her abandonment that she hasn't the patience or the interest to deal with a precocious child. "I love you," she tells the boy at one point, "but I can't like you." She comes to see Del as Robert's partner in disloyalty, which is to give the poor fellow more credit than he deserves.
The Cryptogram is full of wit, though it's not exactly a barrel of laughs. At the beginning of the performance I attended, the audience was inclined to laugh easily, as if to announce its recognition of the playwright's idiosyncratic locutions. Indeed, those locutions seem so pronounced at the beginning that they border on self-parody. As the performance continued, however, that sort of laughter vanished. The script didn't become better (it's all of a piece), but the intensity of the performances made its sorrowful intentions clear.
It's not easy even for adult actors to play Mamet. As his own director, the playwright has done a remarkable job integrating young Mr. Dane's performance with those of the boy's far more experienced colleagues. Ms. Huffman, Mr. Begley and Mr. Dane are a splendid ensemble.
When you laugh in the course of The Cryptogram, it's less often because the lines are comic than because of the pleasurable skill with which the actors handle them. The dialogue tracks like a ball in an especially eccentric pinball machine. Speeches bounce off one another in totally unexpected directions, seemingly at random, for effects that prompt shudders even as they satisfy.
The Cryptogram is first-rate.
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SOURCE: A review of The Cryptogram, in Variety, February 13, 1995, pp. 59-60.
[In the excerpt below, Taylor offers a mixed assessment of The Cryptogram. Taylor praises Mamet's directing and writing abilities, but argues that the play seems incomplete and borders on the banal.]
Directed and acted with exactly the right Mametic rhythms, harmony and counterpoint, this American premiere of David Mamet's The Cryptogram reveals it as a prime example of style triumphing over content that teeters on the brink of banality. Unlike the play's world premiere in London in June, which was helmed by American director Gregory Mosher, this version is directed by the author and gives every evidence of being precisely what he wants. As such it's almost always verbally fascinating, but it also raises the strong possibility that other productions not directed and acted with such apt precision would have a high irritation factor.
Set in 1959, with references to World War II, the play is not the puzzling matter of codes or ciphers its title suggests. What unfolds is a familiar tale of a marriage breaking up, betrayal by a friend of the separating couple, and the impact of the breakup and betrayal on the wife, 10-year-old son and friend. Neither the three characters seen in the play nor their tale is of riveting interest per se. But that's not taking into account Mamet's highly quirky dialogue. Minimalist, halting, fractured, repetitive, syncopated, staccato, overlapping, it has a life of its own that, in the hands of the playwright/director and his cast, almost convinces that there's more here than meets the ear.
The first of the play's three scenes opens with Del (Ed Begley Jr.) seated, leafing through a magazine. John (Shelton Dane), the 10-year-old who lives in the house, comes downstairs in his pajamas and strikes up a conversation, at first about having packed his slippers for a trip into the woods with his father. The father, a former World War II pilot, never appears onstage, and as is so often the case with catalytic unseen characters, had the potential to be the play's most interesting character. The further the story proceeds, the more he's missed.
The mother (Felicity Huffman) eventually emerges from the kitchen, where she's broken the teapot while making tea, and the dialogue spirals more and more urgently, often swallowing and regurgitating itself. The scene ends with the boy, who can't sleep, handing his mother a letter. It's from her husband, announcing that he's leaving her.
In scene two the son doggedly continues his search for meaning in words and life, suggesting the possibility that to children, adults speak in codes or ciphers. Del admits he's a "geek" and then delivers a cruel blow to the woman by announcing that rather than having recently been on a fishing trip with her husband he was allowing the husband to use the hotel room in which Del lives for an assignation with another woman. The wife orders him out of the house.
In scene three, Del returns to apologize. The wife is showing clear emotional and physical deterioration, her relationship with her son prickly and overwrought. "Each of us is alone," she tells him while assuring Del that all the men in her life have betrayed her. The play ends abruptly….
What unfolds on this set does not have the controversy quotient of Mamet's previous play, Oleanna. It almost suggests that it's the first three scenes of a longer play waiting to be completed by the arrival of the husband.
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SOURCE: "Crypto-Mamet," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 9, February 28, 1995, p. 83.
[An American educator and critic who frequently writes on drama, Kalb has served as managing editor of Theater and is the author of the 1989 Beckett in Performance. In the following, he offers a negative review of The Cryptogram, arguing that in the play, particularly as staged by Mamet, Mamet focuses more on mood and atmosphere than on plot development and character motivation.]
David Mamet has always had his detractors, but until this misbegotten premiere I have never known him to offer them succor himself. In directing this desiccated production of The Cryptogram, he seems at loggerheads with actors who either cannot or have been told not to animate his mannered language, invest it with their own creativity. And the result is that his style comes off forced, overdetermined, a sort of overwriting camouflaged as austerity—just as the skeptical critics used to say in the 1970s, before performers such as Al Pacino and Joe Mantegna gave them reasons to look closer.
The Cryptogram is what its title implies—an encrypted dramatic puzzle in the tradition of Pinter, designed to entice us into an obsessive search for solutions. Set in a cheaply furnished, nondescript living room in 1959 (when Mamet was 10 years old), the play deals with the effect of a father's leaving on 10-year-old John, his mother Donny, and a gay family friend named Del. It is not my favorite Mamet play—the spareness and studious avoidance of social context feel a bit derivative (of Beckett, Pinter, and Mamet himself), the self-conscious chilliness a bit trite (by Mamet's own standards)—but it is as dense and tightly constructed as any of his other texts, which I learned only by reading it on the train home.
As usual, Mamet's focus is less on organizing events than on creating atmosphere, faithfully reproducing that world of missed signals, incomplete connections, and irredeemable coldness he seems perpetually to see in his mind's eye. The coldness has a different flavor this time because it envelops a child, as do his familiar cloaking devices—those odd modes of speech and behavior he uses to obscure surface action and redirect our attention beneath—since they keep our interest in the mystery fueled.
What mystery? Take your pick of a hundred questions about situation and motivation that have no definite answers yet beg to be asked. What went wrong between Donny and her husband Robert (who never appears), and when? Were Del and Robert lovers, and if so, what is Del's place in the house now? Why is he there all the time? And why are the adults oblivious to the obvious mental nosedive of the child? The key to deciphering the cryptic action—it would give away the finale to say more—is realizing that no questions of this sort are of the essence.
One must look behind and between the sparse and fragmentary facts. The three characters talk over and through one another, for instance, continuing what they were saying two lines or two pages before, regardless of what the other person just said, so that even the basic plot is hard to follow in performance. It's as if everyone, including callow John, were infected with a sort of contagious pigheadedness, insisting on finishing their thoughts as a shield against really being heard or achieving closeness—ordinary conversation as a potential door to chaos.
Mamet also leans heavily, as he has before, on the dramatic value of simple frustration, peppering each of the three scenes with exasperating repeated questions ("What?" "When is my father coming home?") and interruptions that recall the infuriating phone rings in Oleanna. Every time someone is on the verge of a personal revelation, or a spiritual connection, someone else enters, usually the boy—who cannot sleep and whom no one ever tucks in. In another production, John's numerous reappearances (his thoughts increasingly ominous) might bring a dark chuckle or two—here they are utterly humorless, barely evoking weak pathos.
Which brings me back to the subject of acting. For reasons that can only be guessed at, Mamet apparently instructed his performers to maintain neutrally expressionless faces and venerate his pauses like holy writ—with the result that the play is deprived not only of suspense but of every other hook that might have held the audience's interest in the mystery. Felicity Huffman and Ed Begley Jr. as Donny and Del are so preoccupied with inserting requisite silences after every half-line ("Oh. Oh …" "To, um … to, um, what is the word …?" "Look what I found") that their characters don't even make sense as ciphers for emotional stinginess. Worse still, Shelton Dane as John starts out with an affectless monotone and works himself up to near catatonia, as if Mamet were so afraid of the child actor's cuteness that he decided not to let him act.
Heaven knows what conceit about highlighting the indeterminacy of his characters' emotional bonds caused Mamet to eliminate all emotional continuity this way. In any case, there is such a failure of energy among this cast—really a palpable sense of defeat and demoralization—that the whole affair cries out to be started over from scratch.
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SOURCE: "David Mamet's Child's Play," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 7, April 10, 1995, pp. 33-4.
[In the essay below, the critic relates Mamet's thoughts on his childhood and family life, language, and unhappiness, particularly as revealed in The Cryptogram.]
At the far end of the pine table in the basement kitchen of David Mamet's town house, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his six-month-old daughter, Clara, bobs in her baby bouncer; at the near end, the playwright himself is also bobbing, but with his mouth open to snare the mushrooms being lobbed at him from the other side of the stove by his actress wife, Rebecca Pidgeon (Becs to him), who is whipping up a pasta primavera. In the mushroom-catching department, Mamet is all chin and playfulness, but in the playwriting department he is all heart and ferocity. At home, Mamet seems to have found his bliss, and in his latest play, The Cryptogram, he seems to have faced the source of his fury.
The play, which Mamet is directing, and which arrives Off Broadway, at the Westside Arts Theatre, on April 13th, dramatizes a child's emotional abuse in a way that no other American play has ever attempted: from the child's point of view. Mamet's gift for dramatic dialogue may be God-given, but his scrutiny of language—that nervy vigilance in which the pauses, the coded words, and the sludge of speech are registered, picked over, and served up with gripping accuracy—is the wary habit of a lifetime of on-the-job training in his own abusive household. In "The Rake," the first [chapter] of his 1992 memoir, The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions, with its chilling boyhood anecdotes of betrayal and viciousness, Mamet offered a glimpse into the puzzle of his family misery. For the moment, however, in order not to diminish his considerable achievement in The Cryptogram by reducing its power to mere autobiography, Mamet is staying stumm about his past—being, as he says, "charming and, I trust, evasive."
Childhood is the cryptogram that John, the agitated ten-year-old hero of Mamet's play, who has problems sleeping, and whose father is or is not coming home to take him on a camping trip, is trying to fathom from the mixed messages, lies, and double binds of his caretakers. In Mamet's words: "What happened in childhood? What did it mean? How much is invented? How much of it is distorted? How much suppressed?" Mamet sees myth and drama and dream coming down to the same childhood issues—"the terrors and pleasures of existence before we learned to repress and to filter and to abstract that into conscious perception"—and he says, "What art does is to reverse the process: to re-abstract our conscious perception back into experience." John's quest taps into the audience's own search. Unlike Mamet's polemical Oleanna, which prompted argument, the new play bypasses reason and prompts deep, visceral feelings about the past which have a way of making the memory of the play implode in the imagination.
"People may or may not say what they mean," Mamet says. "But they always say something designed to get what they want." The gift for cunning gab, he will admit, "seems to gallop in my family." His Polish grandfather, Naphthali, was a daydreamer, who sold ten-cent insurance policies in America, and who could "charm the birds off the trees." Mamet's father, Bernie, a labor lawyer who graduated first in his class from Northwestern Law School, "had a gift for crisp conversation—very colorful and very precise. We all had a vast vocabulary." But in Mamet's plays it's not just how people speak but how they listen that betrays the influence of the emotional abuse about which he's loath to elaborate. "Tolstoy says that all happy families are alike, and every unhappy family is unhappy according to its own ways. I think the same is true of language," Mamet says. "The language of love is, finally, fairly limited. 'You're beautiful,' 'I need you,' 'I love you,' 'I want you.' Love expresses itself, so it doesn't need a lot of words. On the other hand, aggression has an unlimited vocabulary. The unhappy family has myriad ways in which to be unhappy, in which to torture its members. In a happy family, the denotations and connotations of words are fairly close to the surface. But in an unhappy family relationship/political situation/trial, you are dealing with an adversary, and you have to be on guard. You listen with a much more attenuated decimal point of meaning to gauge the other's intent."
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SOURCE: "A Tale of the Cryptic," in New York Post, April 14, 1995.
[An English-born editor and critic, Barnes is the author and editor of several books about the performing arts. In the following excerpt, he praises Mamet's emphasis on childhood and the pain associated with the dissolution of a family in The Cryptogram.]
A Cryptogram—a message in code or cipher. Code, mystery, solution. What we are is what we were, and our present is largely a secret message from our past.
Things happen to a child. A father leaves. A family friend disappoints. A mother goes shrewish into the bad night. We need to understand, to grapple with the frozen moments of the past, the moments that stopped us in our tracks and made us what we are.
Psychobabble? Of course! If you go to David Mamet's new play The Cryptogram expecting anything more than conventional enlightenment you may well be disappointed.
Mamet is no original thinker, but he is an original playwright. Using time-stained materials, he has invented an original and vastly interesting play that opened at the Westside Theater/Upstairs last night (pushing out Charles Busch's You Should Be So Lucky and igniting a controversy in the process).
It has been suggested that this very brief play, set in 1959, is partly autobiographical, because some of its facts—primarily a father leaving home—apparently coincide with those of Mamet's own Chicago childhood.
True or false, it's irrelevant, an irrelevance perhaps pointed up by the author, who after the London production, removed program-mention of Chicago from the play, leaving it placelessly anonymous.
The important thing here is not memoir, but how powerfully Mamet has evoked the pain and process of childhood—the way we learn "the meaning of things that have occurred."
The language is intentionally portentous—the three actors talk around one another with oddly artificial locutions, as if they were conversing in a translation from the telegraphese. At times the dialogue sounds like an oddly unsubtle and unfunny parody of Pinter or even Albee.
But it's not—the influences are there sure enough, yet Mamet is providing a stilted validity to his own very personal concept of lost innocence and bruised experience. As the play puts it: "Everyone has a story … And finally you are going to have to learn how you will deal with it … At some point we have to face ourselves."
The Cryptogram is the story of 10-year-old John's story. The story he must live with. And die with. And absorb.
To the play text, Mamet has appended a verse from a camping song: "Late last night when you were all in bed / Mrs. O'Leary left a lantern in her shed." John is the transfixed victim of yet another "Chicago fire," a calamity of which he has no part and less understanding.
The outer story surrounding John's confrontational inner story, is simple—a man (we don't meet him) leaves a letter for his wife telling her he is never returning home.
At first, she finds some solace in the couple's homosexual friend, but feels betrayed when she learns that the friend instead of going off earlier on a hunting trip with the husband had actually during that time loaned his hotel room for the husband's assignation with his girlfriend.
The play's original production was staged by Gregory Mosher in London last year, where it had a critical rather than popular success. The text has since been slightly revised—for one thing I think the friend is now more overtly homosexual than before, and the boy has lost the model airplane he once had in his room.
This time round, the play has been directed by Mamet himself—possibly a mistake, because the play seemed somewhat stronger in London. The action moved at a less formal gait, and the playing was altogether more naturalistic, which added to the story's poignancy, and the sense of a child looking back mostly into his life and finding, if only vaguely, that defining point of character….
So finally, what is the cryptogram of the title? It's surely the Sphinx's riddle we all, like Oedipus, have to answer. And it is the mystery of what really happened at our own personal crossroads.
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SOURCE: "David Mamet's Attempt to Decode Family Life," in The New York Times, April 14, 1995, p. C3.
[In the review below, Canby offers a laudatory assessment of The Cryptogram, extolling Mamet's use of language and disturbing dramatization of family life and "emotional games."]
The Cryptogram, David Mamet's radical, elliptical new work as both playwright and director, is not casually titled: it speaks in code.
The play is thick with spare Mamet language, which is delivered in such a relentless way that commonplace words take on an edge and a ferocity that have little to do with the meanings and emotions they usually evoke. The words sometimes punish. They also illuminate, creating a child's vision of the world with a poignancy seldom experienced in the contemporary theater.
At the end of the 75 intermission-free minutes, you may be moved and mesmerized, as I was. Or, like some others, you may be as ready to leap in front of a cruising taxi as to hail it. The Cryptogram is tough, but it rewards. The production, which opened last night at the Westside Theater Upstairs, is a virtual replica of the first-rate production staged by Mr. Mamet in February for the American Repertory Theater in Boston.
The Cryptogram is a family drama so pared down that it almost seems generic, though it's not. It's specific and idiosyncratic. There are three characters: John (Shelton Dane), a 10-year-old boy who is the son, Donny (Felicity Huffman), the mother and abandoned wife, and Del (Ed Begley Jr.), the unmarried family friend who represents Robert, the offstage father, husband and betrayer.
The year is said to be 1959, though the play appears to be taking place in the timelessness of a remembered childhood. Except for references to "the war," nothing attaches events to a particular period. Nor does anything in John Lee Beatty's scenic design suggest that these characters have much in the way of quotidian lives.
The single set looks stripped, devoid of details that might invite sentimental identification. It contains an inexpensive couch at center stage, a chair with an ottoman to the right, a rug on the floor and, at the back, a stairway to the second floor. There are no pictures, books or magazines, no windows or doors, no forgotten detritus of daily life.
Mr. Mamet is dealing in basics. It's as if we were seeing an American living room for the first time, possibly the barren truth behind the nothing décor of Father Knows Best. In the course of the play's three scenes, covering one month's time, this living room becomes an arena where John begins to grow up.
He's a bright child without being preternaturally precocious. He knows enough not to question the reasons for his father's departure, (Robert has fallen in love with another woman.) At the beginning of the play John and his father are planning to go on a camping trip the next day. After Robert vanishes, John seldom mentions him. The boy's on his own as his mother deals with her own abandonment.
Donny is not a cruel woman, but she's too involved with her own fury to pay much attention to John. Del, the feckless friend, is blamed for having been aware of Robert's affair, and for having provided the room where Robert and his new love would meet.
Such are the events of The Cryptogram, which is played out in a series of oblique encounters between the son and his mother, the mother and the best friend, and the best friend and the son. The dialogue is sometimes brutal in its banality. Del to Donny: "What are you going to do this weekend?" Donny: "This weekend?" Del: "Yes." Donny: "Well, I don't know." Del: "You don't know what you're doing this weekend." Donny: "I'm going to sit." Del: "To sit here." Donny: "Yes."
Much of this talk between the adults is simply sparring, not for time but to avoid facing truth. It also allows the voice of the boy to be heard with piercing, unexpected emotional impact. As he becomes increasingly aware of the collapse of the life he has known, he questions the truth of everything, the existence of things he has been told about but has never seen, including the cities on his globe. "Maybe," he says, "there's nothing on the thing that it is of," And, "We don't know what's real. All we do is say things."
These are not the sorts of philosophical questions that a distraught American mom wants to ponder. When John asks Donny if she ever wished that she could die, he briefly gets through to her. "Everyone has a story," she says. "This is yours. You're going to have to learn how to deal with it." Toward the end of the play, her patience, like Hitler's before he obliterated an entire country, is exhausted. She claims John has lied to her by not staying in bed. "I love you," she tells him, "but I can't like you."
The Cryptogram is a horror story that also appears to be one of Mr. Mamet's most personal plays. It's not about the sort of physical abuse we see in television docudramas, but about the high cost of the emotional games played in what are otherwise considered to be fairly well-adjusted families.
That's not easy to dramatize, Mr. Mamet's method is to create an insular world in which words are weapons that can maim. His direction is as cool and formal as his intricately designed dialogue. This is spoken by Ms. Huffman, Mr. Begley and Mr. Dane, the members of his extraordinary ensemble cast, with the sort of intense dispassion that allows us to understand the sense of things while being aware of every syllable. It's as if Mr. Mamet were deconstructing language to make us think more clearly.
I'm not sure that he entirely succeeds, but the effort is fascinating. The Cryptogram is a fine new American play.
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SOURCE: A review of The Cryptogram, in Variety, April 17, 1995, p. 45.
[In the following, Gerard positively reviews The Cryptogram, discussing, in particular, the horror generated by the play's final scene.]
It's impossible to imagine anyone being prepared for the closing seconds of The Cryptogram, a quietly shattering finale that caps 80 of the most densely packed, emotionally searing minutes this season—or any recent season, for that matter—has offered. As one would expect from David Mamet, the scene is played with a spareness of affect that belies an ambiguity beneath the surface: It is only a young boy climbing a staircase to the attic of his home, as his mother and a family friend look on. But the boy is carrying a hunting knife, and what use he will make of it is almost unbearable to imagine.
As the play's title demands, we find ourselves searching for the meaning of the scenes in The Cryptogram leading to that moment. Yet the play is one of the least elliptical Mamet has written; indeed, it's skeleton key to the work of a playwright who has electrified the stage for more than 20 years, provoking fist fights as often as praise along the way.
Skeleton key, hell—it's the key, the door and the whole closet, an unfinching look at the depthless emotional fractures that occur with the dissolution of a family, and, by inference, at wounds that will inevitably pass down through succeeding generations, as in a Greek tragedy. Make no mistake: This is the play that sets the season on fire.
How that talk will translate at the box office is another matter, for The Cryptogram is soul-rattlingly bleak. But no play since Michael Weller's 1987 Spoils of War has so rivetingly captured the paralyzing pain of a child and a parent in the face of irreparable rupture, and certainly none in memory has done it with Mamet's acuity.
The stairway dominates John Lee Beatty's simple set, and it's where the boy, John (Shelton Dane), spends much of the play. In the first scene, he's waiting for his father, unable to sleep in anticipation of a camping trip they are about to take. He banters with Del (Ed Begley Jr.), a gay family friend. John's mother, Donny (Felicity Huffman), is impatient with his reluctance to go to sleep—"It's grown into this minuet every night," she says, telling Del that John "has to learn the world does not revolve around him."
But in the railing John finds an envelope addressed to his mother, and after he finally departs, she reads the note from her husband telling them he has gone for good. The next night, the story grows even darker as Del confesses that he has allowed the husband to use his shabby hotel room as a trysting place with another woman.
"This is the only bad thing that I've ever done to you," Del tells the sobbing Donny, her cheeks, already hollow with misery, now seeming drawn to the point of stretching.
The final scene takes place a month later, as Donny and John are preparing to move out. "Things occur in our lives, and the meaning of them is not clear," she says, though in truth there is nothing unclear about the desertion from which they will never recover.
John is still wracked with sleeplessness, and by voices he cannot identify, beckoning him to the attic, where he wishes to retrieve a blanket that has already been packed. His repetitious insistence on getting the blanket grows in effect into an incantatory wail, yet it cannot penetrate Donny's own hurt. Her inability to hear, let alone comfort, him horrifies us; it makes us want to take to the stage and save both of them before they are lost to a despair beyond salvation. And when Donny allows Del to give John his father's knife—ostensibly to open the box holding the blanket—she seems to be giving him implicit permission to do something quite different.
The absent father's story is necessarily insignificant. All that matters is his leaving, the ultimate abuse of child and spouse. We wonder, of course, if John will survive, only, like so many sons of divorced parents, to someday leave his own wife and children.
Indeed, what's overwhelming about that final scene is how Mamet's signature speech rhythms—the halting, staccato delivery, the half-finished sentences, the constipated emotional outbursts—seem completely natural, pouring forth from a confused, hurt boy, the fitful patterns of a child who cannot—who will never be able to—comprehend why he has been treated so cruelly. It's as if the playwright were telling us: This is the way it has been, all along. Suddenly the obsessiveness of Mamet's style is revealed in the thwarted, truncated attempts at communication by a baffled child.
It's a stunning revelation that Mamet himself drives home by eliciting perfectly modulated performances from a mesmerizing cast. That's especially true of young Dane, who speaks this language of abandonment as if born to it. Perhaps he's lucky enough not to have been. But for any child or parent who has survived what is in so many ways a commonplace in our society, The Cryptogram holds no secrets. The meaning is there for all to see, drawn in pure anguish.
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SOURCE: "Broadway Goes Off," in New York Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 17, April 24, 1995, pp. 76, 79.
[An American essayist and critic, Simon has served as a drama critic for New York Magazine as well as a film critic for Esquire and the New Leader. In the excerpt below, he faults The Cryptogram for its lack of content and Mamet's use of language and dialogue.]
"A playwright who imprisons his characters within crippling verbal debris" is how Jeanette Malkin of Jerusalem's Hebrew University describes David Mamet in a book. I agree with this completely—except that she intends it as praise. It's one thing to imprison Mamet's characters—in Sing Sing, an underground oubliette, or crippling verbal debris—but another to so incarcerate the audience. Mamet's characters, after all, are guilty of having become involved with one of our most pretentiously vacuous playwrights; the audience, however, save for having been suckered into a shell game, is relatively innocent.
The Cryptogram starts out with what appears to be a typical middle-class family on the eve of a stay in their cottage in the woods. The seeming paterfamilias, Del, is reading on a sofa in their living room in 1959. The date, given by the program, is meaningless except perhaps to Mamet, but let's not quibble about a minor meaninglessness here. Offstage upstairs, John, circa 10, should be asleep. Offstage downstairs, mother Donny is making tea. But John is kept awake by excitement about the trip and comes down the exposed stairs to start pestering. And Donny, as she announces four times offstage and at least once on, has broken the teapot.
Further, Del is not Donny's husband and John's dad despite being patriarchally ensconced on that 1959 sofa. The real daddy is Robert, who is working overtime at the office—at least that's what Donny keeps telling John; actually, he'll never return. Del is a family friend, vague father surrogate, and something else I can't tell you without giving away the crypto and leaving you with only a couple of grams of gram.
Mamet is up—or down—to his usual verbal games. It begins with why John isn't wearing his slippers: They're already packed. This piece of information is chewed and rechewed. So is the fact that John couldn't sleep: "What does it mean, you couldn't sleep? It means nothing other than the meaning you choose to assign to it." Later, the kid says, "I'm perfectly alone; that is what I was saying to myself—because I didn't have a pen to write it down." This is stated three times; it all sounds writ by a nitwit who read Wittgenstein. Or just heard about him.
The form is dramatic fetishism: Object after object is verbally idolized. The slippers, the teapot, the blanket John wraps himself in against the cold. This blanket has a hole in it: freshly made, as John claims, or an old tear, as Donny maintains? This problem is good for many lines, though not quite so many as which coat John should take, an agon meriting at least twelve speeches. But even the coat cannot hold a candle to the knife: the German army knife Robert may have captured in the war (or may not have); the knife he may have given Del when they went camping together (or may not have—as, indeed, they may not have gone camping); the knife that may be in two different locations and may in fact be two knives. And should this knife be entrusted to John, to cut the twine around the package that contains …
But who cares what it contains: Contents is not what Mamet is about. About language, then? Yes, if you like rambling monologues that, merely because they occasionally connect, pretend to be dialogue—and don't even connect so much as encroach on one another. Mamet is the man who mistook the hat he was talking through for his muse.
Felicity Huffman moved me: Here is a capable actress who clearly believes in what she is doing to the point of imagining a role where there is none. She does not even mind mouthing Mamet's solecisms: "The older I get, the less that I know" and "If you do not sleep, lay there." Ed Begley Jr. also grapples touchingly with such lines as "Who am I? Some poor queen who lives in a hotel." Granted, Mamet dialogue should be inflicted on a kid only as punishment; but Shelton Dane betrays no charm or talent whatever and suggests that John must be Childe Mamet.
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SOURCE: "Codehearted," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 17, April 25, 1995, p. 97.
[Feingold is an American critic and educator. In the following, he offers a favorable review of The Cryptogram.]
"Auch kleine Dinge können teuer sein," runs Wolf's bestloved song, "Even little things can be precious to us." David Mamet's The Cryptogram is made up of little things—memories, household objects, verbal slips—that are precious as clues to the explanation of a childhood trauma. Magnified by it, they become objects of both veneration and horror, things that are not so much cherished as burned into the awareness.
The central figure is a child, but the action is conducted in rigidly adult terms, a puzzle that a child can only decipher in retrospect. It feels like a deep-buried memory of the playwright's own, striking with a force at once more personal and more profound than his other works: Under the cold, terse phrases, the spare structure, the formalized tableaux, its vulnerability is tangible, almost unbearable.
The adult's secret code that the child will have to crack in the future is paralleled by a puzzle to be solved in the play's present: Why isn't Daddy home? Del, the only man on the scene, is neither father nor husband, one of those spinsterish, sexually wavering "friends of the family" who is supportive to the absent man's wife, affectionate to the son, but, as it turns out, not really a friend to either. His love has led him into duplicity; under cover of his evasions, the husband has escaped forever from the marriage, betraying his friend as both have betrayed the wife.
The son, barely grasping any of this, feels betrayed by all three. No wonder he can't sleep, and hears voices in his dark bedroom. He thinks the dead are calling to him—but, of course, he doesn't know what "dead" is: When his mother, Donny, throws deceitful Del out the door and breaks down crying, the boy asks her, "Are you dead?" In a sense, he's not wrong. The house is full of dead things: love, marriage, friendship, affection between mother and son.
Mamet echoes their absence, visually, by staging the play in a creepily grave, arid style—naturalism with pieces inexplicably missing: The living room has a sofa and chair, but no tables. The staircase on John Lee Beatty's Hopperish set seems to stretch up to a dark infinity; the son's last slow ascent of it—on his way to the attic, with his father's hunting knife—makes the audience gasp as intensely as Cherry Jones's final-curtain climb in The Heiress.
Like other objects in the play, the knife too turns out to be a deceit, its obvious meaning false, the ones it will carry in retrospect more complex and numerous: a parting gift, a death wish, a symbol of the father's phallic betrayal, a memento that's also a manufactured lie. This is man's inheritance: Every memory is bittersweet, every object from the past as false as it is precious. The present is a cryptogram which we only solve years later, when its message is no longer any use. "Ye must become as a little child again," said the fellow who allegedly rose last Sunday. But when you do so, you find, not salvation, but the hell your parents unintentionally wished on you, to be passed on as unintentionally to your children. "Myself am Hell," as somebody else once remarked.
Once or twice, Mamet's austere language stiffens up into the stilted; a few of the terser exchanges slip down into ordinary Mametese. Beyond that, both his script and staging seem dauntingly, chillingly perfect, even in such weird details as Del's ornate struggle to handle a bottle and two glasses with no surface to rest them on. Begley, making his stage debut, is convincing, if occasionally a shade tentative. The play's emotional weight rests on Huffman, whose fierce, precise assurance on every elliptical line makes you marvel even while she's wrenching your heart out. And Shelton Dane's eerie, grave concentration as the child is so attuned to the Mamet style, you might almost believe he understands the play, which I sincerely hope for his own peace of mind he doesn't. Some future director will probably have this taxing role played by an adult actor in child's clothes—looking, I expect, a great deal like David Mamet.
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