Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Cryptogram - Theater Review

I was thrilled and curious that Seattle Public Theater chose David Mamet's 1994 drama, The Cryptogram to kick off its new season. I read the play when it first came out and was intrigued and confused by it at the time, and always wanted to see what it would look like on its feet. Seattle Public gave me, and the rest of the audience, a thoughtful, chilling and well balanced production of what is clearly and challenging piece of theater.

The Cryptogram is a smaller work from the controversial Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet. First, its basically a one-act play clocking in at barely an hour long. Mamet, who is known for his terse muscularly minimalist dialogue, has never been one to write a Eugene O'Neil-esque 4 hour epic drama. However, even amongst the brevity of most of his plays, The Cryptogram still stands out as a more modest piece of work.

That is not to say that his themes are small. Indeed, the one thing you can probably never accuse a Mamet play of is being unambitious in its content. On a basic level the play, like most of Mamet's work, is about trust; who can you trust, what is the real truth, can you tell the difference, does the difference matter in the end? Where normally these questions are played out by con-artists, thieves, businessmen, and movie executives (clearly Mamet believes these four groups to be practically synonymous), in this play they are explored through a domestic family setting.

In a traditional American living room one evening in 1959, ten year old John, played with an intense haunting duality of innocence and wisdom by the young Rowan Calvert,  eagerly awaits his father's arrival home from work in anticipation of the camping trip the two will take tomorrow. An old friend of the family, Del, whose complex motivations for being at the house this night are balanced expertly in a memorable performance by Richard Nguyen Sloniker, waits with John's mother, Donny, a tightly wound female played with determined callousness by Emily Grogan, as the two try to calm the excitable young John and get him to go to sleep.A seemingly simple domestic scene.

Yet even as the first lines are spoken we know things are not well in this house. John complains of hearing voices, of hearing a radio playing. The two sounds are making him uneasy and unable to sleep. His mother, does not now, nor anywhere in the play, ever really listen to John. She is the classic self-involved distant mother whose sole aim is to get him to bed regardless of anything he says (There is another whole essay to be written about how Mamet writes coldly and judgmentally about women. In this play, where the never on stage father abandons his family, it is not he who receives the audiences scorn but the ever-present onstage mother who is vilified and condemned.)

Director Kelly Kitchens seems determined to maximize the creepiness factor of the play by adding dimly lit interludes at the opening of the play and between the scenes that emphasize the atmosphere of unease in the household. She also changes a small bit of stage business involving a letter that makes its origins and its place in the house even more mysterious than the written play suggests. These choices have a dual effect, one that helps and the other that hinders. On the positive side, by letting the audience know, via that stark minimalist set, the moody sound-scape and the additional staging, that this is going to be an unsettling experience, it allowed the audience to go with that experience more fully than if it was staged with an eye solely on realism. However, in  a play where meaning for the audience is already frustratingly allusive, the combination of these directorial decisions made the overall experience of the play just that much less satisfying.

This is David Mamet's most personal and autobiographical play (There is also another whole essay that could be written about the significance and symbolism of the young John and a young Mamet. The boy's handling of the knife, a tool he is given by an adult, to open boxes with begs the question, "what will he do with the knife?" Mamet, who wrote a book about the art of drama call The Three Uses of the Knife, eventually took his own tool, the pen, to fight back at a world that he felt didn't listen enough). Supposedly he wrote it much earlier in his career and kept it in a drawer due to his strong personal feelings about it. If you have ever read or listened to an interview with the author, you will know that he is almost combatively private and closed off about personal matters. It feels like this lack of willingness to share that aspect of himself might have bogged him down in this play.Even is such a short work, there is an amazing amount of repetition. Small plot twists that in his other plays and movies would be revealed and dealt with in a few lines and a minute or two of stage time seem to go on forever here. When Donny finds an inconsistency in Del's story about how he was given a knife by her husband, the two of them go over the details so much that audience members are tempted to intervene to move the story along.

All that said, the Seattle Public Theater production does exactly what it should do with a play like this. The three actors skillfully handled the extremely challenging and sometimes seemingly purposefully unnatural dialogue of Mamet's text that served the author's intentions and aesthetic without falling into a deadened cliche delivery that those of us familiar with Mamet's work have heard way too often. Plus, as I lingered in the lobby and outside the theater, I heard virtually everyone who left discussing the play, offering their own take and interpretation of the material. These artists engaged their audience and gave them an experience that lasted well beyond the running time of the play itself.

Seattle Public Theater's The Cryptogram runs through October 23 at the Bathhouse Theater on Greenlake.

After Thoughts or Pet Peeves 

As one of the aims of this blog is to engage and enrich the Seattle Theater Scene, I feel its important to include comments on productions that would not normally have a place in a regular review. Mainly, these following criticisms should not be read as an attempt to deter anyone from going to see this worthy production, but should be looked at as part of a collective peer group dialogue where smaller points of a production can be discussed in the spirit of getting us all actively thinking about how to continually better our work in the future.

Prop Consistency : This was a minimalist staging of a play without a lot of needed props or set pieces. That said it was supposed to take place in a traditional living room. I thought the overall look of the play was solid  and fitting - costumes, set, props. However, there were a few moments that seemed to ignore the artistic aesthetic established by these elements. The first two had to do with liquids. Donny brings out a couple cups of tea early in the play. I am all for not having actors bring real hot  liquid out onto the stage. Yet, I am also a believer that the audience should at least be able to accept that tea might be in those cups. Yet when Donny came out swinging her arms holding those tea cups, it left no doubt that not only was there probably no liquid in those cups, but that it clearly wasn't hot. It was a very distracting moment. Almost as distracting was when Del is trying to feed John some medicine from a spoon. He pours the medicine from a bottle onto the shallowist of spoons on one side of the stage and then proceeds to walk across the stage with the spoon to the reluctant John where they then begin to battle for a couple minutes about whether John will drink the medicine or not, while Del continues to move about holding the spoon with the medicine, which we are then asked to believe Del successfully gets into John's mouth. Anyone trying to accomplish such a task would clearly bring the bottle to the boy and pour it there. If they didnt think of that right off, the awkwardness of trying to accomplish a playground game of not spilling the liquid from the spoon as you cross the room, would make them correct themselves and proceed as previously described. Did these actions ruin the play - no. But the accumulation of these kind of inconsistencies do make, even for the average theater goer, even if they can't put their finger on it, a less than full experinece.

Packing When There is Nothing to Pack - In third and last scene of the play Donny is packing up the house. The play calls for the room to be "denuded." Yet when you start with a minimal set (no real walls, no real pictures on walls, no knickknacks) it doesn't leave much to pack. Not a problem. Don't make the actress pack what is not there. Put the boxes about so we know moving is eminent and leave it at that. But having the actress awkwardly roll up a large rug and put throw pillows in a box, felt weird and not in keeping with the world of the play. She was packing these things because they were the only things there, but since the director and set designer had decided on a minimal set, the packing aspect of this scene should have taken a back seat to the other drama happening on stage.

Sound : As I mentioned earlier, there was a non required but effective sound-scape added to the play. This made me all the more curious about another subtle but significant sound element. When we first meet Donny, she is offstage in the kitchen. She breaks a tea pot. Del reacts to the breaking and they exchange dialogue while she remains in the kitchen.First, I didn't hear the crash of the tea pot. Nor did I later, in another scene, hear the tea kettle start to whistle until well after Donny had reacted to it and was moving off stage to get the tea. But bigger than these two issues was the fact that Donny didn't sound like she was in the kitchen. She sounded exactly like an actress sounds when they are backstage. Your voice sounds different when you shout into curtains rather than shouting in a space surrounded by drywall. Again, in a minimalist production we don't have that much to pay attention to and these little details stand out.