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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 14, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 41
Cryptogram is quite the puzzle
Arts & Entertainment
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Cryptogram is quite the puzzle

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

The Cryptogram
Seattle Public Theater
Through October 23


Sometimes a theater company chooses a play that looks intriguing on paper and you can understand the possible attraction, though you still wonder at the choice. Seattle Public Theater's artistic director, Shana Bestock, clearly loves 'the word' and chooses plays that are deeply focused in exactly how words are used to tell stories.

One such intriguing play is being performed at SPT this month. The Cryptogram by David Mamet is not one of Mamet's frequently performed plays - and for good reason.

Mamet has never been one to like clearly spelled-out consequences and behaviors, but Cryptogram takes this exercise to a whole new level. It almost sounds like a Mamet exercise in writing like Harold Pinter, the famously sparse playwright whose talent is in the partial sentences we all say (especially when we know each other well) when shorthand will do.

Kelly Kitchens directs a wonderful trio of actors in this exercise. The deft Emily Grogan, always entertaining to watch whether she's comedic or, as in this case, dramatic, plays Donny, a tightly wound mother with a difficult child and a difficult marriage. The amazing young Rowan Calvert is the wonder-child of the day: able to speak these half-sentences and repetitions with understated grace and terrific self-possession.

The child, John, is clearly mentally challenged. He can't sleep, ever, and hears voices and singing in his head. Yet, the play is set in 1959, when child psychology was almost non-existent, and parenting books were still focused on children being seen and not heard. Donny is left to her own devices with John, who wears on her when she has to deal every night with a sleepless child.

In her support is best family friend Del. Richard Nguyen Sloniker dances a careful balance of trying to support both John and Del, while not jeopardizing his relationship with Denny's husband Robert, who is never seen in this play. Del is uncomfortably out as a Gay man, and trying to have whatever kind of family is available to him in 1959.

The characters stutter and repeat their way through the short play (with no intermission) in three scenes. The tension is clear - John is not sleeping, Donny is waiting for her errant husband, and they all become somewhat fixated on a hunting knife that Del claims Robert gave him. It becomes an object of jealousy and a focus through the rest of the play.

As it is revealed that Del helped Robert commit adultery in secret from Donny, Donny's ability to be civil with Del is strained to the breaking point, even to her using homosexual slurs against him to goad him to be angry back at her. And her ability to deal with her son becomes non-existent. The basic story appears somewhat autobiographical, at least about his experience of being a child.

The title is of a puzzle. The play's language is a puzzle to decipher. It is never clear and always a challenge to understand what people are talking about in their non-sentences. It's up to you if you're willing to engage in the mystery, though the actors are up to the challenge of playing these mysterious characters.

For more information, go to www.seattlepublictheater.org or call 206-524-1300.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com.

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