“Cryptogram” by David Mamet, produced by Seattle Public Theatre, opened at the Bathhouse Theatre this weekend. Taking place in 1959, there are three characters, John a ten year-old boy played by Rowan Calvert, his quintessentially fifties perfect-looking and perfectly clueless uncompassionate mother, Donny, played by Emily Grogan, and the husband’s best friend, a possibly-gay looser named Del, played by Richard Nguyen Sloniker. The “play” itself was three angry conversations, in which a lot of conflict comes up around John’s parent’s divorce, Del’s role in it, and John’s under-reactions to his emotionally cruel mother. Using the classic “Mamet-speak” the dialogue is terse, opaque and very like the conversations mathematicians indulge in when they want to play “let’s hide our emotions by being more precise than thou.”
Absent from the script was any psychic movement by the characters, each character was psychologically in the same place at the end of 90 minutes as they were at the beginning. The emotionally repressed mother has no self-realization about how she is driving her son towards suicide or a nervous breakdown, the son never dramatically reacts at all to the emotional damage and Del, the family friend, continues to be a wimp. So the circumstances were delineated but never developed or resolved, i.e. the whole play was a 90 minute overly-long exposition and then just abruptly ended.
Whatever it takes in terms of acting and directing to make Mamet dialogue interesting, engaging or watchable, rather than just unpleasant was not evident in this production. The lack of two dimensional characters, wit or humor, which is always necessary when presenting anger on stage, was missing, so that the audience had no reason to care about these characters. Also the pacing of this sparse dialogue was off, at times much too slow, and the pauses just seemed pauses rather than filled with emotion or reactions.
The set, lighting and music however, were intriguing and created a physical metaphor for the dialogue. It was realistic but stripped to the minimum; on the walls, there were pictures frames, with nothing in them, representing the dialogue, i.e. hints of something of substance but really about emptiness.
I have seen Mamet productions which were more watchable than this production, However many awards this play has received, it is not a particularly good script and the acting as well as the directing, merely emphasized the weakness of the script.
“Cryptogram” by David Mamet. Produced by Seattle Public Theatre, Directed by Kelly Kitchens. The Bathhouse Theatre, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N., Seattle, WA 98103. Tickets: www.seatttlepublictheatre.org or (206) 524-1300. Thurs, Fri, Sat at 7:30, Sunday at 2 pm. September 30 to October 23rd