It’s not just David Mamet’s extensive writings about writing that have led some critics to regard him as a dangerously self-conscious dramatist, too clever by half. Undisguised patterning is embedded in the very language of his plays and screenplays, and not for nothing did he call his first film as writer-director “House of Games.”
His elusive 1994 drama “The Cryptogram” doesn’t entirely escape the charge of artificiality, but Josie Rourke’s highly controlled revival reveals the play’s artful game to be clever in the best sense, because Mamet’s means and his meaning are perfectly matched. The writing may be tricky, but its emotional content is definitely not tricksy.
The game begins almost immediately. On the evening before 10-year-old John (Oliver Coopersmith) goes on a camping trip with his father, he has come down the long flight of stairs that crosses the back wall of Peter McKintosh’s neat, 1959 Chicago living-room set. He’s barefoot but in his pajamas, and he cannot sleep.
Del (Douglas Henshall), his mother’s kindly but geeky friend, asks him, “What does it mean, ‘I could not sleep?'” and then promptly answers his own question: “It means nothing other than the meaning you choose to assign to it.”
Initially, in a play titled “The Cryptogram,” the suggestion that meaning is relative sounds like a show of defiance, an excuse for writerly vagueness. In fact, the idea is central to the emotional core of the play, and it’s expressed through John’s distressed reactions to the adult crackup that engulfs him.
Increasingly disturbed, John assigns “meaning” to the latenight conversations he hears but doesn’t understand. His suburban-sophisticate mother Donny (Kim Cattrall) and Del slide ineluctably from mild parental evasions and exasperation to rage and bitter recrimination. Donny goes from accidentally breaking a teapot to discovering the unexpected breakup of her marriage. As the play progresses, her pain and anger increase as mild-mannered Del appears to have been implicated in her husband’s behavior.
Mamet turns the screw ever tighter to pursue his metaphor of meaning. He conjures slippery uncertainty from the start, which gives way to unease as John keeps interrupting the two old friends because he’s afraid to go to sleep. What are the fears that haunt him? Who is responsible?
The suspense increases as Cattrall disintegrates from composure to true rage. What, she demands, did Del know about the betrayal? Del, meanwhile, tears himself apart because he’s desperate to be loved by everyone. He tries to explain, to absolve himself of guilt, but only adds to the cross-fire, with John upsettingly caught in the middle.
Cast against type, Cattrall extends her range impressively. Hair swept up and sculpted into a pleat that Wilma Flintstone might have borrowed, she economically establishes her homemaker credentials by clutching her cardigan about her shoulders. That neatness makes her unraveling, stabbing sobs all the more shocking. Henshall, too, is nicely precise, never overplaying the dubiousness of the character.
The piece is little produced. At just over an hour, it hardly makes commercial sense, and it’s too disturbing to sit neatly in a double bill. More crucially, the play stands or falls with the performance of a very young actor.
Plenty of seasoned adult actors fall at Mamet’s linguistic hurdles. The lines are so opaque and fractured that they are extraordinarily hard to learn, let alone illuminate. The performance of 11-year-old Coopersmith on press night (he alternates with two other actors in the role) was all the more astonishing — and distressing — for its eerie composure in the face of spiraling emotions.
Rourke’s exacting excavation of the text cannot entirely disguise the strain of the play’s more overwritten passages. At various points, Mamet’s conscious questioning curdles into self-reflexiveness that sounds like Albee at his most abstruse. Elsewhere, her painstaking direction avoids the lines’ potential tennis-rally rhythm, the besetting sin of many London Mamet revivals.
Neil Austin’s lighting reveals all three characters murkily reflected on the black-lacquered back wall. It’s a perfectly ghostly image that captures the spirit of this flawed but frightening play.