First impressions can, of course, be deceiving, but mine of 65-year-old David Mamet’s play “The Cryptogram,” whose world premiere was at the Ambassadors Theatre in London in 1994, was simply how unhelpful and knotty a work it was.
In light of its title, perhaps that was to be expected of this piece by the renowned American playwright, author, screenwriter (notably of 2001’s smash hit, “Hannibal,” starring Anthony Hopkins) and film director whose 1988 Tony-nominated “Speed-the-Plow,” a bitingly satire of the U.S. movie business, was enigmatically dubbed by some as a “tone poem.”
Built around just three characters — the mother, named Donny (Narumi Yasuda), Del (Shosuke Tanihara), an old boyfriend of hers, and her son John (played by both Waku Sakaguchi and Eru Yamada) — this family drama involves them talking in virtual riddles about their life stories and their insights in what amounted to streams of verbal fragments.
As consolation, however, I learned that this unique style of dialogue — which is accorded the proper name “Mamet Speak” and features in many of the writer’s works — typically comprises characters’ unfinished sentences and overlapping dialogue that appears to have no logical connection.
In “The Cryptogram,” we encounter fragile little John complaining he hasn’t been able to sleep since his father Robert (who we don’t see) disappeared. Though Del, his mother’s old friend, keeps telling him his father will soon return, Donny, his mother, doesn’t care about his feelings at all.
Then Donny finds out she’s been betrayed by both her husband and Del. In this mess, as the grownups are only concerned about themselves, they pay no heed to John’s hesitant mumblings of, “Help. Look at me.Please listen. I’m here, Mum.”
Though the dialogue here isn’t as fast and aggressive as in some other Mamet plays, conversations are still often cut and each character’s real intentions are lost — while John, who is not good at talking, is often left standing on the stairs mumbling short words.
Taking up the challenge of staging this work is Eriko Ogawa, one of Japan’s most in-demand freelance theater directors. Since returning here three years ago after 10 years in New York, Ogawa, 33, has earned a huge reputation as a director of contemporary foreign plays — most of which, including “The Cryptogram,” “The Late Henry Moss” by Sam Shephard and “The Homecoming” by Harold Pinter — she has translated from English herself.
So, as I sat there in Theatre Tram in Sangenjaya, I was at times in awe at how splendidly Ogawa presented this puzzling piece as such a powerful and lively family drama despite its many silences, repeated phrases, monosyllabic exchanges of “yes,” “why?” “no” etc. — and conversations apparently about to start that cut after “I … ”
Somehow, though, with only an ordinary living-room set whose colors gradually shade from white to gray, the production manages to portray something quintessential about life and the state of the world, showing nothing’s really black and white or good or bad.
As the three characters calmly keep going despite all, in a way that comes as a welcome surprise you feel the play rising up before you as a true but perplexing triumph of the human condition. Not only that, but even the fragments and the silences start to convey some inexplicable message and somehow make sense, while before us each character’s hopeless stagnation is plain to see — and feel — even without it being voiced.
This is triumph of a team — the director and cast — who so clearly believed in and sought out the power of the play and allowed us to share in the true dynamism of live theater that’s unmatchable by virtual stories on small screens or smart phones.
“The Cryptogram” runs till Nov. 24 at Theatre Tram, a 3-min. walk from Sangenjaya Station on the Denentoshi and Setagaya lines. It then plays in Hyogo on Dec. 3. For details, call Setagaya Public Theatre on 03-5432-1526 or visit setagaya-pt.jp.