As a 10-year-old did you sit alone in your room flustered by emergent existential crises while your parents had fondue socials in the kitchen? Did you crave parental affection or just toothpick appetizers? Angst is adolescence in David Mamet's The Cryptogram, now running at the Magic Theater. A young boy is lied to, bribed, and drugged with cough syrup, all to get him to sleep as his parents' marriage disintegrates in the living room. But the boy, John, played with prodigal skill by Eli Marienthal, is acutely aware of this decay.
A cryptogram is anything written in cipher; as with Mamet's other plays, the bulk of the meaning here is sunk in subtext, words and images tossed around like poker chips. Mamet is renowned for his optimal use of the word "fuck," but less noticed is his use of obscenity as a smoke screen. "The point," Mamet wrote, "is not to speak the desire but to speak that which is most likely to bring out the desire." In The Cryptogram, agendas aren't hidden behind profanity; they're camouflaged in the courtesy and polite discretion of clipped, 1950s cocktail chatter. Mother figure Donny (Susan Brecht) wears a trim red Betty Crocker dress; she has the robe of warm maternity, but not the emotional generosity, and can't soothe her son's anxiety when her husband abandons them. Consumed with her own frustration, she becomes a harpy in pin curls and capri pants.
Mamet's artificial patter can flatten the best actors. Director Barbara Damashek's production succeeds by letting the actors erupt out of the stylistic tyranny, color outside the lines. The set suggests emotional sterility: Antiseptic white light filters over futuristic leather and lacquer furniture. But Brecht and Liam O'Brien (as family friend Del) litter the landscape with anger and sexuality. The characters are more human, more approachable than the traditional Mamet menagerie of real estate salesmen and petty thieves, and this is one Mamet play where women aren't the alien enemy. The Magic Theater production is a chance to see Mamet's most intimate and esoteric work in a performance that avoids the pounding staccato of his signature style.