A destructive family isn't the only problem in The Cryptogram

by Joey Guerra

Daily Cougar Staff

Watching the Alley Theatre's production of David Mamet's The Cryptogram is like enduring a visit to the house of your least-favorite aunt. You know it's supposed to be something you should like but, try as you might, it's hard to withstand even five more minutes as soon as you sit down. You then spend the next hour or so squirming around hopelessly in your chair.

From the very beginning, I knew this play was destined to fall flat on its pretentious face. Not being too familiar with the work of Mamet, I assumed the play, which dealt with a crumbling family unit and the involvement of a friend in the whole scheme of things, was going to lead to a thought-provoking, enlightening evening.

I was wrong.

We are brought into the home of Donny (Kathleen O'Grady), who is helping her son John (Jimmy Fanelli) pack for a camping trip with his father. Also present is Del (Michael De Vries), Donny's gay-for-no-apparent-reason friend. That De Vries chooses to omit any sense of Del's sexual orientation is just one of the play's innumerable problems.

Soon, we learn that Donny's husband has left her, and Del knew all about it. He even helped Donny's no-good hubby by lying for him. The play then leaves the characters to deal with their emotions in their own ways, which makes for a hair-pulling evening and the worst production I've encountered in my young, theater-going life.

Mamet has a very specific sense of dialogue in his works (Oleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross), but it is all but lost on this production. Line delivery is stale, actors answer each other too quickly to register a thought, and emotions seem calculated, never spontaneous or genuine.

This is especially true with O'Grady, whose performance seems straight out of a high school production. She yells, she screams and she cries, but I'd be amazed if anyone actually felt any sympathy whatsoever for her. This is highlighted in a crying scene near the end, where O'Grady simply crunches her face together, opens her mouth, and no sound comes out. She looks like she just stubbed her toe.

De Vries is serviceable as Del, but as mentioned earlier, his character seems sexually ambiguous. Only Fanelli, as the young, precocious Jimmy, registers any emotional impact. His pain and trauma seem real, and he incites sympathy from the audience.

The audience ... that's another thing. The play is performed with no intermission and is just over an hour long. Before it was done, at least eight people, that I was aware of, got up and left. While some may say, in their overpraising, that leaving is the audience's ignorance and misunderstanding of the work, I see this as an important point. Why put on a play no one wants to see?

I am reminded of Benefactors, another overrated play put on last year, which seemed to have no target audience whatsoever. The Cryptogram, which is set in 1959 and is devoid of any realism regarding the time period, will most likely struggle for a target audience or an audience, period.

Perhaps if this production were injected with just a bit of dramatic impact or feeling, it would be moderately successful. But with weak characterization, no motivation, repetitive dialogue and insipid, rhetorical questions, The Cryptogram simply falls flat on absolutely every level.

This type of theater is neither necessary nor entertaining in a world where smaller, more localized theaters are putting on bold, refreshing productions which make works like this pale in comparison.

"Things occur in our lives, and the meaning is not always clear," says one of the characters in the play. Since the time I sat through this bland production, I've, been pondering that question in reference to The Cryptogram.

The Cryptogram plays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and also at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 7 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. Tickets are $16 to $42. Call 228-8421 for more information.

Donny, whose husband has left her for another woman, (Kathleen O'Grady) struggles to deal with her precocious son John (Jimmy Fanelli) in the Alley's production of David Mamet's The Cryptogram.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Bennett/The Alley Theatre

Last Modified: 8-17-96    © 1996 The Daily Cougar

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