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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Cryptogram
Donmar Theatre Autumn 2006

David Mamet's very short (barely an hour) 1994 play is a study in fear, impotence and - as the title suggests - de-coding.

It's about how we don't speak openly to each other about what we think and feel, and how the essence somehow gets communicated or miscommunicated anyway. And appropriately it is written in an indirect, elliptical style that evokes Pinter as much as Mamet.

A mother, her son and an old family friend await the arrival of her husband in a setting of at first inexplicable tension. We will eventually learn of more than one betrayal among the adults, but then realise that on some unconscious level they were already aware of them, and thus uneasy in the seemingly innocent setting.

This is particularly evident in the boy, who is told nothing about what is going on, but whose inability to sleep, obsession with pinning down the precise details of the most trivial things, and fears ranging from specific to existential show that he is reacting to something in the air.

(It won't go unnoticed that Mamet sets the play in the late 1950s, when he would have been roughly the boy's age, though there's no hint of it being literally autobiographical.)

I fear that I may have made the play sound more interesting than it is, especially in this production directed by Josie Rourke.

Unlike those master minimalists Beckett and Pinter, Mamet's plays don't really resonate outward. His minimalism is at its best when stripping away social niceties to expose the raw emotional core of interactions, and here everyone's unhappiness is evident on the surface, so there are few discoveries in the subtext, and you leave the play feeling there must have been more there to tell.

I have nothing but praise for Oliver Coopersmith, one of three boys alternating in the pivotal role. As the mother, Kim Cattrall has been directed or allowed to make a single note the totality of her characterisation, as she makes her as rigidly self-controlled as her tightly-pinned-down hairdo, so she has nowhere to go but hysteria when the control slips.

Douglas Henshall makes the friend far too ineffectual and fluttery from the start, again leaving him nothing to develop or reveal, along with being burdened with one of the worst attempts at an American accent I have ever heard from a British actor (which is saying a lot), a collection of sounds never made by any actual human being (The nearest I can come to it is Brooklyn crossed with Forrest Gump).

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Cryptogram - Donmar 20