A cryptogram, something written in code or cipher, is not necessarily something you can understand even if you find the key. So it proves with this short, highly personal and emotionally baffling play by David Mamet which is no more accessible or enjoyable, really, than it was when given its world premiere in the West End 12 years ago.
Three scenes, spanning four weeks, are played without an interval. Although Josie Rourke’s tensely arranged production has two fine performances from Kim Cattrall as the beautiful wife and mother, Donny, and Douglas Henshall as the gay family friend, Del, you feel markedly short-changed after a mere 65 minutes of bluff and counter-bluff.
The central character is neither Donny nor Del, but Donny’s 11-year-old son John, who’s poised on the brink of growing up. And beyond the shadows of this comfortable living room in Chicago in 1959, lurks the absent father and estranged husband. John is waiting for him to come home and take him on a camping expedition. Instead, a series of clues culminating in the discovery of a fateful letter on the stairs, reveal that all expectations are on hold in this broken family.
John is troubled by voices and visions and cannot sleep. Mamet’s child’s eye view of life in turmoil is a deeply disturbing one, but this quality of the play eludes the performance of young Oliver Coopersmith as John (the role is shared with Joe Ashman and Adam J Brown). Twelve years ago, Danny Worters was quite terrifying in the role, but he had a lot to compete with on the stage in Lindsay Duncan’s mysterious neuroticism and Eddie Izzard’s rather too hale and hearty friendliness.
Here, Kim Cattrall allows the oddness and obliqueness of the writing to do the work for her. After crashing the crockery off-stage before her entrance, she sails serenely through the play, tugged this way and that by the small revelations of deceit and betrayal.
Designer Peter McKintosh provides a huge staircase on which John can escape to his nightmares, and the lighting of Neil Austin lends the piece an illumination at odds with the elliptical obfuscation of the text itself. Mamet’s own parents separated when he was ten years old – around the time of this play, he published a searing memoir, The Rake, which records incidents of violence and secrecy in his own childhood – and the play is obviously haunted by a very private pain. The result, however, is not so much minor key Mamet as just plain minor Mamet; a dramatic tease which does not expand in the memory.