The central design image of David Mamet's new play "The Cryptogram" is a staircase leading up into the ether -- which is where the play itself is likely to remain for many spectators.

The central design image of David Mamet’s new play “The Cryptogram” is a staircase leading up into the ether — which is where the play itself is likely to remain for many spectators.

As the title suggests, the play exists to be decoded, and Gregory Mosher’s muffled production doesn’t always abet the process. But for all its apparent opacity, “The Cryptogram” deals in no less palpable doses of pain. This highly personal work about abandonment and betrayal awaits a sharper staging to pierce through its mysteries to the misery beneath.

The situation and structure are classically Mamet: Three people’s lives upended in three short scenes. In 1959 Chicago, a young boy, John (Danny Worters), waits for his father to take him “into the woods” only to discover he lives amid a thicket of cruelty and lies.

His mother, Donny (Lindsay Duncan), receives a letter announcing her husband has left them, and by the end of the play discovers their good friend Del (Eddie Izzard), a gay man living in a nearby hotel, is no less a traitor.

“Certain things remain, like friendship,” Del tells Donny, but the remark proves shockingly false. The world of “The Cryptogram” is one of isolation where incomprehension is the norm.

What links this hapless unit? A second-scene verbal volley of “I don’t understand” echoes the student Carol in Mamet’s “Oleanna,” a play whose social breakdown is here supplanted by one far more primal.

But audiences wanting the theatrical jolt of “Oleanna” will find none of that play’s polemicism, and little of the invigorating joy of language found in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Instead, “The Cryptogram” is a more sophisticated variant on lesser Mamet plays like “Lakeboat” and “The Shawl,” in which the characters are would-be philosophes, and human discourse exists as much to cloak as to reveal.

Somewhere between a sketch and a full-blooded drama, the new play teases as much as it tells. And yet, ellipses aside, its abiding despair cannot be ignored.

From its title onward, “The Cryptogram” seems obsessed with its own meaning.

It doesn’t take much to figure out that the play isn’t remotely naturalistic, and Bob Crowley’s mysterious Rothko-esque set — translucent panels dissolving into blackness — and Rick Fisher’s lighting provide an immediate clue.

Far less helpful is Mosher’s direction of a cast still feeling its way into this writer’s unique rhythms.

The underwritten opening scene is made more frustrating by the actors’ halting delivery of Mamet’s half-sentences, as if they haven’t been fully apprenticed in the rules of the verbal game.

Things improve after the unnecessary intermission, but Worters, sad to say, just isn’t up to the task of the death-fixated John; swinging from the banisters of the set, he’s more physically agile than emotionally expressive. Unintelligible at points, he doesn’t speak the play’s language in any sense.

Duncan is no stranger to American plays, but she remains too parched and cool a presence to move us with a grief transmuted chillingly against her son in the final moments.

By that time, Izzard’s initially likable and sweet-faced Del — the production’s best performance — has given way to malignancy, as his spoken mantra, “a blessing on this house,” is discovered to be a curse.

“The Cryptogram” is unlikely to be a hit, but it’s an important amplification of its author’s deepening nihilism, and it seems to answer Mamet’s previous work in the same private way as John Guare’s “Four Baboons Adoring the Sun” spoke to “Six Degrees of Separation” or Brian Friel’s “Wonderful Tennessee” to “Dancing at Lughnasa”: An artist is taking risks, and his public is left to follow along — or not.

The Cryptogram

Ambassadors Theater, London; 450 seats; T19.50 ($ 30) top

Production

A Frederick Zollo, Nick Paleologos, Gregory Mosher, Susan Gallin, David Richenthal, Suki Sandler and Frank and Woji Gero presentation of a play in two acts by David Mamet. Directed by Mosher.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Rick Fisher. Associate producers, Steven Glick, Judith Resnick. Opened and reviewed June 29, 1994. Running time: 1 hour, 35 min.

Cast

Donny - Lindsay Duncan
Del - Eddie Izzard
John - Danny Worters
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