In talking to actor Jenny Young days before The Cryptogram opened, she said director Daniel MacIvor described the work as “a play that you feel.” Judging by the reaction from the audience opening night — there were plenty of gasps and observations in the crowd — it’s safe to say people were indeed getting emotionally involved in David Mamet’s brief play about loneliness, restraints of 1950s society, the disintegration of a family and a child’s loss of innocence.
Plot-wise, not much happens in The Cryptogram. Set in 1959, the play opens with 10-year-old John (Mitch H. Kummen) up past bedtime, waiting for his dad to come home. Mom Donny (Young), exhausted and near the end of her rope, is urging her anxious son to get to bed to rest up for the camping trip he’s supposed to go on with his father. We then meet Del (Vincent Gale), a longtime family friend who is always eager to engage the young John in discussions he hopes will make him wise to the ways of the world.
We soon learn that dad isn’t coming home — and that Del has betrayed this family he claims to love. Soon, the relationships between this on-stage trio strain, then fall apart completely.
Mamet’s jilted, abrupt dialogue takes some getting used to and even grates at times, but sticking through the first act pays off in the play’s powerful climax. In some ways, the play feels almost farcical and Shakespearean at points; everyone is talking (and sometimes yelling), but no one is listening to each other. All three performers do a great job with the difficult script, particularly the young Kummen; and Young’s complete breakdown at the end of the show is believable as it is tragic.
Lorenzo Savoini’s set is as isolated as the characters themselves; a simple ’50s-era living room floats in the centre of the stage, an exaggerated staircase ascending from it; this is where John spends most of the play, observing household happenings from above. In a nice touch, director MacIvor has his characters occasionally disappear, attempting to communicate with each other from places unseen.
This is definitely not an offering for everyone — some will find the stilted dialogue difficult to get into, or the characters hard to sympathize with — but fans of Mamet’s explorations of the darker side of societal constructs will enjoy.