Circling the central mystery of The Cryptogram are a camping trip, the provenance of a German pilot's knife, and a young boy's "sleep issues." But the things themselves are less ominous than their harrowing verbal orbits amongst three increasingly distressed people in David Mamet's three-act drama, a sort of psychological micro-mystery. Chris Horton and Tess Van Horn direct a tight production for Mad Horse's fourth Dark Night Series, which runs Monday through Wednesday in the Portland Stage Company Studio Theater.
Everything happens in the 1959 living room of housewife Donnie (Bess Welden). Her talkative young son John (the virtuoso Dyan Chestnutt) can't sleep. He waits for his father to come home, packs for a trip to the woods, and engages Donnie and family friend Del (Peter Brown) in eerie ontological questions about reality, death, and the voices he hears when he goes to bed. Donnie and Del drink tea and talk at each other about the vagaries of memory. When it becomes clear that John's father will not be coming home, their homey triangulation cankers.
The Cryptogram is classic Mamet, with his signature stylized zoom-in on stutters and repetitions, how people talk around and at angles to each other. His dialogue is among the most difficult in the modern canon to pull off. But Horton and Van Horn direct a wondrously taut production of this verbal spiraling. Brown, Weldon, and Chestnutt have fleet, devastating timing, and their intonation varies evocatively over merciless repetitions of words both meaningless and fraught.
This is dark, deep, scary stuff, even as it is also utterly familiar. As the verbal minutiae of each character gradually reveal interior horrors, we see that their mystery's central puzzle may be shown, but far less easily solved.
The Cryptogram | by David Mamet | Directed by Chris Horton, Assistant-directed by Tess Van Horn | Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company's Dark Night Series | in the Portland Stage Studio Theatre | through October 21, Mon-Wed @ 7:30 pm | $10 suggested donation |madhorse.com