Puzzling Out Mamet

Not all 296 seats of the Alley Theatre's Neuhaus Arena Stage were filled for the opening night of David Mamet's The Cryptogram. Some that were filled weren't exactly occupied: a smattering of people left during the performance. These departures were conspicuous: the three-scene, 80-minute play is intermissionless, and the Neuhaus Stage is in the round. These departures were also unfortunate: while the Alley's production may be spotty, Mamet's play itself is nearly beyond reproach.

Reproach, as it happens, is one of the touchstones of The Cryptogram, a bitingly taut, astringently funny look at a subject Mamet has heretofore been largely uninterested in: the American family, in this case a white, suburban, middle-class one. Set in 1959 -- as if auguring the end of the hearth-and-home era -- The Cryptogram begins as Donny, a tightly wound woman in her late thirties, John, her ten-year-old insomniac son, and Del, a gay family friend who drinks, wait for Donny's husband/John's father to come home and take John camping. The man never shows up; he's run off with another woman. The three-character play explores the ramifications of this development. As expected from Mamet, and as the insinuating title suggests, much turns out to be mysterious, eerie and not a little dangerous.

Tension, not to mention blame, is spread all around, with the action unfolding in Donny's living room on that first night, the following one and an evening a month later. Del, it turns out, knew about, and covered for, Donny's husband's affair. John, so precocious that he might very well be mentally ill, thinks he hears sounds in his head when he sleeps. Donny, put out by John's constant questions and evasion tactics, can only say, "You must go to sleep. If you do not sleep, lie there. Lie in bed. What you think about there is your concern. No one can help you. Do you understand? Finally, each of us E is alone."

When we're not alone with our thoughts, Mamet posits, we're alone with our words: The Cryptogram continues his philosophical investigation of what it means -- and doesn't mean -- to communicate. A playwright who hones speech like no other, Mamet developed his famous elliptical, staccato dialogue because he sensed that language, by its very nature, is encoded. Since so much is at stake with Mamet's language, it often feels as if it's going to explode. The crowning achievement of Mamet-speak is that the very precision of speech that his characters use to try to reach comprehension carries with it ambiguity, confusion, threat and violence. Words become a supreme weapon, which helps explain why most of the uneasiness, as well as the aggression, in Mamet's plays is verbal, even in a work such as this one in which the idiom isn't harsh. "I don't understand," the characters repeat in The Cryptogram -- even when they do.

As does Mamet's best work, The Cryptogram has humor so tough it hurts. Just at the point when Donny is overcome with what's happening to her, John, who's developed a fever, perhaps because he's babbling at a fever pitch, wants her to explain how people know what they know. In fact, John keeps barreling down the stairs at all the wrong moments, constantly distracting Donny and Del. Donny speaks to John "as an adult," as if the child has to be reasonable because he's advanced. Donny's communication with Del is hardly better; when she becomes enraged at his betrayal, Del betrays himself as a weakling by rationalizing, "This is the only bad thing I have ever done to you." The humor is hard because it absolves no one.

Occasionally, Mamet presses. "At some point we must learn how to face ourselves" and "You know, they say: it's not the sins we commit that destroy us, but how we act after we've committed them" are only two of the heavy-handed messages that he needn't have included. But this very well made play leaves you numb from laughing -- and cringing -- in horror, to no small degree from its central symbol: a German paratrooper knife wielded in all sorts of ways by the characters, even, most alarmingly, by John. Suffice it to say that in slicing through the veneer of the nuclear family as he does, Mamet suggests the future doesn't bode well.

Scott Zigler, the associate director of The Cryptogram's smash off-Broadway production, has been brought in to direct the Alley offering. So you'd think the atmosphere would be suitably spooky and dark, all alienation and suffocation. It's not. There isn't enough strain, or apprehension, or dread, as the characters' choices get cut from under them. The final scene, however, is relentless and claustrophobic; as if their lives depended on it, Del and Donny hurt each other over the origins of the combat knife. But even here Zigler loses his grip: who has the knife at the end of play, and what might happen then, should make you gasp, but it doesn't. It's not that Zigler takes the air out of the play, it's just that he doesn't make the air heavy enough.

Though the scene changes are cumbersome, Zigler does better on the technical level. He and his cast speak to Mamet's rhythms, adeptly shifting gears between individual words, not to mention topics. And Zigler makes effective ironic use of a rolled up carpet placed diagonally across the stage. What's more, the carpet is joined by boxes from United Van Lines.

Some of the production's limitations aren't Zigler's fault; they're built in. It's no easy task for a child actor to take on Mamet's dialogue. Jimmy Fanelli, as John, knows what he's saying. He's also a responsive listener. He deserves praise that the play is intelligible. But he's unable to make John seem so importunate that he might well be neurotic. A type of bright that's on the cusp of instability, John should be an uncomfortable, troubling boy, traumatized and victimized, perhaps as much by himself as by others; Fanelli, however, is too literal in his line readings. The immature John calls for a mature performance; for better and worse, Fanelli goes back and forth.

Neither he nor Kathleen O'Grady as Donny show sufficiently the burden of being a newly broken family. This might be pardonable in Fanelli's case; it isn't in O'Grady's. Only at the end does she find the shock and anger her set-upon character requires. In the last act she's so intensely distraught that she almost erases the memory of the ill-advised histrionics that serve as her performance's foundation in earlier scenes. She'll grow into the role, I think. And her exchanges with Fanelli are oddly stirring throughout; she's both maternal and chilly, available and remote, suggesting unsettlingly that her character leaves something to be desired.

Avuncular with John and cagey with Donny, Michael De Vries' Del is out for himself and yet wishes he weren't. His is a fine line between self-interest and self-loathing. Would that this skillful actor conveyed Del's homosexuality; by neglecting to shade the character's sexuality, De Vries muddles some of Mamet's intricacies.

"In reality," Del observes at one point, "things unfold independent of our fears of them." This is exactly what happens with the Alley's production of Mamet's play.

The Cryptogram plays through April 7 on the Neuhaus Arena Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

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Peter Szatmary