On the surface, Seattle Public Theater's current production of David Mamet's "The Cryptogram" is a simple family drama. But then, this is Mamet and nothing is simple. Especially when you add in his glorious language and it goes from simple story to sublime dance of words. And while I enjoyed the language and the Mamet-ness of it all, I ultimately walked away more than a little confused.
As I said, the story is a simple one. It's 1959 and 11 year old John (Rowan Calvert) can't sleep as he's too excited for the camping trip he's taking with his Dad the next day. But Dad's not home yet which only increases John's level of anxiety. Family friend Del (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) is there and tries to engage John in thoughtful discussions hoping to tire him out. And Mother Donny (Emily Grogan) seems even more anxious about the whole situation. But then, that's what's on the surface. As we go deeper into the language and the play we eventually see the crumbling of this iconic familial trio into the flawed and damaged humans they really are.
To be honest, I didn't really get the ending of the show. The lights came up on this one act play and I thought, "I'm missing a scene to explain all this or tie it all together somehow." But that's also Mamet for you (although I'm usually not as confused when I leave). I left the theater really not understanding where he was going at the end and neither did my theater companion for the evening. Both of us felt we needed someone smarter than us to explain it. However, in writing this review I did get a little light bulb to come on in my head and now think I get it ... I think (although I could be fooling myself). And no, I'm not going to tell you the ending so you will have to find your own light bulb. So while, yes it is the good plays that make you think and talk long after the show is done, I think Mamet, and director Kelly Kitchens might have made this one a little more clear. More so Mamet than Kitchens.
The cast is wonderful. I know adults who have trouble with the language of Mamet so for 11 year old Calvert to take it on and manage the style, pace and timing as well as he did is nothing short of spectacular. Yes he's young, but he managed a subtle and mature performance. Grogan is lovely as the Mother trying to hold together this precarious house of cards. She certainly has the emotion for the piece although I would have liked a bit more of a layered performance. And speaking of layered, Sloniker turns in a thoughtful and complex performance undercut with tremendous subtlety. Or should I say his usual? Every time I see him on stage I am more and more impressed and he's quickly becoming one of my local favorites.
Kitchens' direction of the piece is equally thoughtful and the pace she has instilled is pitch perfect. My one complaint would be to see if she could make that ending more straightforward to the average Joe theatergoer. With a gorgeously neutral set and lights from Richard Schaefer, the production definitely hits on all levels. I only wish it could have hit a little clearer.
"The Cryptogram" performs at Seattle Public Theater through October 23rd. For tickets or information contact the SPT box office at 206-524-1300 or visit them online at www.seattlepublictheater.org.
Photo Credit: Paul Bestock