What Lies Beneath

The kid steals the show in Wilde's version of Mamet's choppy 'The Cryptogram'

Near the beginning of David Mamet's The Cryptogram, an unhappy 1950s housewife named Donny drops and shatters a teapot. Mamet seems to have swept all those little broken pieces up into his script; even more than usual, his characters' lines break off in mid-thought, or are interrupted by impetuous monosyllabic interjections that go nowhere: "Yes." "Which." "I." "Huh." At most, one character simply repeats another's last few words, creating a herky-jerky kind of poetry peculiar to Mamet, although certain of these elements also find their way into the plays of Harold Pinter and both men owe much to Samuel Beckett.

So the 10-year-old Cryptogram, even more than Mamet's other plays, can be a puzzle of language, meaning and intent. It's by no means impenetrable, though; as usual, riches lurk just below the splintered, gritty surface. A new production at Wilde Playhouse probes what lies beneath about as well as Mamet allows.

Late one evening in 1959 Chicago, a precocious prepubescent boy named John can't--or won't--fall asleep. He's scheduled to go on a coming-of-age camping trip with his father the next day, and is naturally excited about that, but the father hasn't yet come home. John's mother, Donny, brushes off her son's concerns, yet she and a family friend named Del seem to be circling some problem with the father, and circling each other, without letting John in on what's happening.

Soon we learn that the father is abandoning his family. But this isn't the only caddish act we'll see; in the course of the play, Donny will learn she's also been betrayed by Del; Del has been betrayed by the absconding husband; and young John is inadvertently betrayed in small ways by everyone around him.

Revelations are slow to come, though, in this 90-minute play (counting one intermission). Partly that's because of the coded language the adults use but don't completely understand themselves. Partly it's because the well-meaning but not entirely innocent Del tries to divert John by simultaneously over-intellectualizing the situation and turning it into a game. "Because we think a thing is one way doesn't mean that's the way it must be," he intones; before long, he advises John to compete with his father--at this point, John still expects him to return--in an exercise of acute observation, at the end of the day comparing notes to "see whose recollection is most accurate." Ironically, accurate observation is precisely what Del and Donny aren't so good at right now.

Mamet's dialogue is almost impossible to put across convincingly; even the playwright's wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon, can often sound flat and robotic, and for all we know, they talk like this in bed. So it's no small wonder that sixth-grader Roman Lewis, as John, makes Mamet's lines sound like natural English. Right from the beginning he proves adept at the staccato bursts of words, a believable kid having a believable failure of communication with the adults in his life.

Interestingly, his two highly accomplished adult co-stars took longer to fall into Mamet's rhythms on opening night. But as the tension grew, Roscoe Gaines as Del and Monica Warhola-Lewis (Roman's real mother) as Donny became increasingly adept at the script's linguistic jabs and feints.

Gaines has hardly had a night off the stage since he arrived in Tucson last December, and let's hope he has the stamina to continue for a long time to come. Varying degrees of smugness were built into his three earlier roles around town, but here, Gaines is allowed to find other resources to conceal his character's secrets and insecurities. Surrogate father, lonely homosexual, family friend with complex motivations for his own little act of betrayal--Gaines hints at many aspects of Del's personality without making anything too obvious.

Warhola-Lewis may rely a bit too strongly on an all-purpose exasperation in her early moments, but she soon pulls her emotions into focus, even though her character tends to lash out at the wrong person at the wrong time. Her explosions of hot anger near the play's end are frightening, and her frigid recoveries are even more disturbing.

Director Matt Walley keeps the action moving inexorably (any rhythmic hiccups are Mamet's fault) without rushing and without inciting his cast to overact. If anything, Lewis and Warhola-Lewis could show a little more suspicion, and Gaines could suggest a little more guilt. But Walley and his cast strip away much of the ambiguity of Mamet's ending with chilling effect; you know that as soon as the lights go down, something very bad is going to happen.

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