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