at Stage Left Theatre
When I saw David Mamet's original New York staging of The Cryptogram ten years ago, it was such an excruciating experience I couldn't get out of my seat for several minutes after the final blackout. None of the three productions I've seen since, including this one, has matched the intensity of Mamet's own clipped, brittle hour-long version. Even Steppenwolf's intelligent, deeply felt 1996 production, directed by Mamet protege Scott Zigler, took most of the opening 25-minute scene to establish the play's stakes. The same problem hampers Frank Pullen's production at Stage Left for the Journeymen--but it's about the only weakness in this engrossing, disturbing show. Once again I felt my legs knocked out from under me, this time by the Journeymen's focused, vulnerable cast, led by brooding 14-year-old Jack Donahue.
It reportedly took Mamet 15 years to finish the semiautobiographical script, which depicts the relentless, irreversible abandonment of a ten-year-old boy, John, by his errant father and traumatized mother. A tense, manicured howl of a play, The Cryptogram is set in a suburban Chicago living room in 1959, the year Mamet was 11. As it opens John can't sleep--a problem he faces in all three of the play's extended scenes, the second of them a night later and the last a month after that--perhaps because he's so excited about the camping trip he's supposed to be going on with his father, Robert, the next day. His mother, Donny, is making tea in the offstage kitchen, hoping it will settle the boy's nerves, though she talks through the door with her friend Del, an effete man halfheartedly attempting to connect with the talkative John. After a few minutes the teapot suddenly shatters offstage, the first of several indications--the late hour, the absence of John's father, John's precocious ruminations on impermanence and uncertainty--that something is seriously wrong.
In Mamet's production the sense of trouble was palpable from the scene's opening moments: the actors who played Donny and Del, Felicity Huffman and Ed Begley Jr., understood that their characters' superficial chatter covered an abyss. Del knows exactly where Robert is and that he's never coming back, because he helped arrange Robert's departure in a pathetic attempt to assert his own atrophied masculinity. Donny won't discover the finality of her husband's absence until the end of the scene, when John finds a note his father left for her, but given the regularity of Robert's "late nights at the office," she knows there's a crisis brewing. Pullen's actors, however--Shannon O'Neill and Daniel E. Brennan--communicate these underlying truths only halfway through the scene, which makes for a flabby opening, equal parts intrigue and idleness, that stretches the play to an unfortunate 90 minutes. Although the actors regularly tap into the ominous undercurrent--Donny's fumbling attempts to put on a brave face are particularly effective--they don't convey the pervasive sense of dread that's needed to unify the splintered dialogue.
Donahue, on the other hand, immediately conveys a keen awareness of the chasm opening beneath the boy's feet. And true to Mamet's exacting style, he communicates this awareness indirectly. Stone-faced and distracted, he fiddles with one thing after another, walks in circles, or stares into the air as if hearing voices. He fixates on the totemic objects Mamet puts in John's way--an old stadium blanket, toy soldiers, his father's army knife--while unleashing a barrage of disquieting questions. Yet he never connects with anything or anyone. As the adults begin to retreat into coded language intended to protect him, John is left increasingly alone, stranded with emotions he can't comprehend. With hardly a facial expression or change in vocal inflection, Donahue makes it clear by the end of the scene that his character is on the way to being terrifyingly lost.
As the play progresses and John becomes more and more bewildered, Donahue's understanding of the character only deepens, and he delivers a performance that's almost too painful to watch. Brennan and O'Neill follow his lead in the final two scenes, plunging into The Cryptogram's harrowing depths as Donny and Del begin to tear each other to shreds. Occasionally they push too hard to squeeze dark comedy from the play's more absurd moments, perhaps in an effort to give themselves and the audience some relief from the bleak material. But Pullen's production delivers a debilitating wallop by the end, once Del confesses the full extent of his betrayal to Donny, she abandons her son, and John marches upstairs with an unsheathed knife.
It's rare that adults must rise to the level of a child actor, but Donahue is a singular talent in a demanding role that reveals his skill. Diminutive and childlike, he's able to portray a ten-year-old convincingly, yet at 14 he can give the role a psychological fullness I didn't see in other, younger actors. Looming adolescence makes his performance all the more poignant: like John's eroding sense of security, Donahue's ability to bring this character to life will soon be gone.
When: Through 9/10: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 and 7 PM
Where: Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield