Shotgun Players Offer a Winning Take on Mamet’s Dense ‘Cryptogram’

Figure ‘The Cryptogram’ out with Robert at [email protected]

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The thing about life is that we are all completely alone within ourselves. It’s true. And that knowledge creates self-interest and alienation, which makes genuine human connection pretty tough—maybe impossible, depending on your mood.

That’s what I got out of the Shotgun Players’ arresting production of David Mamet’s “The Cryptogram,” but when such high emotional stakes run concurrently with such expertly obfuscated circumstances and language, as they do here, the shape of the play’s impact inevitably differs from person to person. Make no mistake though, “The Cryptogram” leaves a brutal mark.

It’s nighttime in 1959 suburbia, and on the eve of their big fishing trip, John (a 12-year-old Gideon Lazarus) grows more and more concerned with his father’s absence and the unwillingness of his mother Donny (Zehra Berkman) and family-friend Del (Kevin Clarke) to address the matter. John hangs on the precipice of childhood, his innocence fading with the peachy-keen decade itself (Director Patrick Dooley offers smart commentary on the significance of the play’s unusually specific time.).

Mamet has made no mystery of the fact that “The Cryptogram” is largely autobiographical, and his startlingly accurate recollection of the way a preteen thinks goes lengths towards establishing a sense of kinship between Johnny and all us former-Johnnies. Creating voices in your head before you sleep, for example, or toying with the idea that our lives are just extended dreams; these are aspects of a 12-year-old’s psyche that don’t have a forum for discussion, and there’s some comfort and affirmation in knowing we weren’t alone in thinking those thoughts.

Lazarus, then, has the daunting task of representing a fall from innocence for an audience of old people that have all been there at some point. That’s no small feat for a young man who may not even have the set of life experiences necessary to pull off the job, but he turns in an admirable (if a bit neutral) performance with what must be one of the more difficult characters in modern drama.

Elsewhere, Berkman offers a sharp performance as Donny. Her journey from the overbearing mother to absolute viciousness has a palpable sense of decay, and her unsettlingly resonant voice gives Mamet’s incisive language an appropriately violent context that’s all the more disturbing when juxtaposed against set designer Lisa Clark’s effectively prototypical 1950’s living room.

Strangely, that stage manages to feel much more claustrophobic than the actual surface area of the space would indicate. Chalk that up to some very capable work from light designer Ray Oppenheimer, who enhances the mood onstage without calling attention to his lighting choices. The exception to that, of course, comes towards the end of the play, when all three characters stand frozen in three separate shafts of white light as the room fades away. Loneliness, remember?

But Mamet, of course, plays the best trick of the night. His script is a brilliant exercise in subtraction that forces audience members to empathize with John not just because of a past shared experience, but a current one—we’re just as confused as the kid. We can’t help but wonder at the significance of that torn blanket, or those socks. Mamet brilliantly (and infuriatingly) decorates a story of fragmentation with shards of language that are only sometimes kind enough to evolve into complete thoughts.

Clarke’s earnest and awkward Del offers seeming words of encouragement, musing, “What does it mean but the meaning we assign to it?”, but that’s really just Mamet throwing down the gauntlet: Figure me out, fucker.


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