The Cryptogram

Steppenwolf Studio Theatre


Pillar Studio

at Facets Multimedia International Performance Studio

By Albert Williams

In his essay “Make-Believe Town,” collected in his recent book of the same name, David Mamet asks: “What is this sense of ‘innocence’ we’ve heard so much about? It may mean ‘childishness,’ or it may mean ‘protectedness.'” The essay’s subject is the Oklahoma City bombing and its media fallout; but “innocence”–its nature and its loss–is the recurrent theme of the plays on which Mamet’s reputation rests. In the actions of the pathetic cocksmen of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the coin thieves of American Buffalo, and the scheming hucksters of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, this Chicago-bred artist sketches the ways people bring about their own undoing through their “innocence” in both of the senses he suggests–provoking enmity and misfortune with childish behavior and clinging to a false, perhaps willfully shortsighted sense of security.

By coincidence, fate, or what you will, two of Mamet’s most striking works are now running in theaters on the near north side, a neighborhood the playwright once called home. The itinerant Pillar Studio is reviving Edmond, originally produced by the Goodman Theatre in 1982, while Steppenwolf’s studio is hosting the local premiere of Mamet’s most recent play, The Cryptogram. Taken individually, they offer haunting variations on the theme of lost innocence, charting the systematic crumbling of their protagonists’ safely insulated lives. Taken together, they remind us of a third meaning for innocence–absence of guilt–as their heroes find themselves burdened with the responsibility for disasters.

In The Cryptogram this burden is unfair: the central character is a ten-year-old boy whose parents’ marriage falls apart. It’s common for children of broken families to feel guilty about the breakup; here Mamet depicts the way these guilt feelings are instilled. Over the course of three scenes, taking just over an hour without intermission, the play depicts how a day of promise turns bleak. It’s 1959, and John–the polite, well-spoken, strangely somber product of a family that rarely shows affection or excitement–is restless in anticipation of that quintessential boyhood rite, a camping trip with dad. His mother, Donny, is also pleased–by the prospect of a weekend alone. As they wait for the father, Robert, to return home, mother and son are kept company by Del, the family’s loyal bachelor friend. Gradually, though, the facade of a happy 50s family deteriorates: Robert’s gone and won’t be coming back, and his abandonment eats away at the people he leaves behind. The climax finds Donny using a minor domestic dispute as a vehicle for displacing onto John her hurt and frustration at being betrayed by Robert and by Del, a softspoken homosexual whose role in the situation provides much of the play’s mystery.

As its title suggests, The Cryptogram is filled with coded messages, their meaning elusive to the end. Unfolding his plot in the style of Greek tragedy–onstage characters react to offstage events–Mamet remains ambiguous about the significance of the words and images he’s using. As in an Ingmar Bergman film, we’re kept on edge by highly charged symbols: a torn blanket, a beat-up book of questionable ownership, an old photograph depicting an occasion no one can quite remember, and above all a knife. It’s a World War II vintage army blade, long prized by John’s father yet left behind when he abandons the family; its usual implications of sexuality and death are thus overlaid with meanings specific to these characters, and to Mamet. When John–the victim of a form of child abuse no less painful for being purely verbal–trudges upstairs at the play’s quietly devastating climax, carrying the knife with ritual solemnity, we know it has become the totem of his loss.

The knife turns up again in Edmond, which can be taken thematically if not literally as a sequel to The Cryptogram. Violent and profane in contrast to the other play’s notable absence of physical brutality, Edmond is a series of short sequences that alternately suggest a particularly dark long-form improv and one of Brecht’s raw early works. The episodes lurch along to trace the journey of the title character–Edmond Burke, a quiet young man bothered by an aching sense of not belonging. One day he leaves his wife (“You no longer interest me sexually or spiritually,” he tells her) and plunges into the grotesque underworld of New York’s flesh market. Ludicrously seeking a little kindness, or at least a price break, from the whores, pimps, cardsharps, and crooks he meets in midtown Manhattan, Edmond soon loses the “childish” attitude that invites beatings, robbings, and general abuse. Buying an army knife in a pawnshop–an impulsive action whose psychological roots The Cryptogram illuminates–Edmond is transformed into a monster who throws away his “mess of intellectuality” to express his hidden nature. He kills a black robber with exultant cries of “nigger,” then murders a waitress he’s picked up. Cast into jail, he’s raped by his black cell mate–and eventually becomes the man’s lover, establishing a contented relationship that defies the racial and sexual taboos that once terrified him.

Edmond’s odyssey takes him from the “normal” life of a working married man into a nightmare of sleaze and abuse, an acting out of guilty self-hate that leads to a complete abandonment of responsibility–in other words, peace. Is Edmond the grown-up John, reacting as an adult to the pattern of love commingled with blame that characterized his childhood relationship with his mother? Certainly where The Cryptogram dramatizes loss of innocence, Edmond’s hero reclaims innocence. Of course “loss of innocence” can’t be pinpointed to any one moment; it’s a lifetime process. The Cryptogram crystallizes that process with dreamlike power, though the play could disintegrate into a mystical muddle if not performed with the right mix of naturalness and stylization.

Steppenwolf’s production, directed by longtime Mamet associate Scott Zigler, offers an eerily effective mix of realism and surrealism. Kevin Snow’s set–a white-walled, sparely finished sitting room with a staircase heading ominously to a dark attic–complements Mamet’s characteristically precise text, with its frequent repetition of phrases to convey the characters’ vain efforts to understand what’s happening to them. And Mara Blumenfeld’s detailed costumes–period perfect, from Donny’s simple string of pearls to John’s heavy, high-cuffed blue jeans–thoroughly ground the characters in their time and place. Child actor Zaks Lubin has mastered Mamet’s precisely etched dialogue to convey John’s sense of alienation, while Marc Vann is effectively restrained as the pathetic, self-despising Del. But lean, blond Amy Morton as Donny is the play’s focus, and she’s stunning as a refined, slightly icy woman whose sense of control is shattered. The scene in which Donny learns she’s been abandoned, when Morton’s eyes alone express her gradual assimilation of and reaction to the information until she crumples to the floor a weeping near-animal, is one of a handful of unforgettable moments I’ve experienced in a Chicago theater.

Morton’s performance is very nearly matched by Chris Holloway as Edmund, whose cathartic breakdown amazingly steers clear of maudlin melodrama under Hallie Gordon’s direction. (Tracy Landecker, Amy Landecker, Steve Hersen, and Michael Quaintance provide solid support in a variety of small roles.) Interestingly, with his close-cropped hair and studious, slightly pinched face, Holloway looks like a grown-up version of Lubin’s crew-cut John–a coincidence that reinforces the disturbing link between these two potent plays.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Michael Brosilow.