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 a 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 unflinching 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 hisreluctance 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 some-day 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.