Wednesday, January 26, 2011

the cryptogram, written by david mamet

If you go to the theatre to be delightfully entertained, amused, or comforted, you won’t like the new show – The Cryptogram – that opened at the Belfry Theatre this week.  If, on the other hand, you have an appreciation for literature, particularly short stories with dialogue that’s left unfinished, questions that remain unanswered, and endings that leave you uncertain what to think or feel, never mind wondering what might happen next, then you’ll want to rob your piggy bank and go.

It’s the 50s, a time when housewives were being prescribed valium to help them cope with the monotony and the frustration of trying to Doris up their every Day.  The Cryptogram’s mom is likeable enough, but it’s obvious she’s not thinking straight.  With one breath she tells her son, who’s suffering with insomnia, to go to bed.  In the next, she insists he put on some clothes.  It’s no wonder the kid’s a bit messed up.  He seems intelligent enough, but he’s obsessed with finding things in the attic, and he hears a lot of voices.

It’d be so easy for one of the adults, either the mother or her … brother?  gay friend?  … to just go to the attic with the kid and cut the string on the box and get the stuff.  I wanted to yell it from the audience …. “go upstairs to the attic and do it for him, so we can get on with the play!”  Instead there are lines and lines of dialogue about the kid’s perceived need to get into the attic, and the mom’s perceived inability to understand or care.  Oh, the futility.

From very near the beginning it’s hinted that the husband is likely out messing around, though nobody wants to admit it.  The wife, I don’t think her name is ever mentioned, does her best to assure her son that everything’s alright.  In typical 50s fashion, everyone’s doing their best to uphold the façade that life is simply perfect.  Always has been, and always will be.  Dad will be home soon.

Even the set design is uncomfortable.  There’s only one couch, so often someone’s left awkwardly standing.  And the lines of dialogue are delivered with precision timing, each one following immediately upon the preceding.  All that’s missing is the sitcom’s laugh track.  And the jokes, to go with it.  There are a few uncomfortably humerous moments but it’s not a play that will leave you feeling in any way cosy and warm, with a sense that all is right in the world.  That’s for sure.  And that’s what I liked about it the best.  Happily Ever After never really is.

As we picked up the empty coffee cups, wine glasses, and discarded programs from the main floor, I engaged in a conversation with one of the other volunteers who insisted that her view of the 50s was nothing like that. She hadn’t enjoyed the play at all.  I wasn’t surprised, she’s an outstanding woman whose life in the 50s was no doubt vastly different from the norm.  Whatever people think of the play, the acting was superb.  It’s tough to deny that, and I learned that the young actor travelled all the way from Winnipeg.  They couldn’t find anyone in Victoria or Vancouver who fit the part. 

Whatever the playwright intended to leave us with, he certainly left me thinking.  It wasn’t until I was half way home that I realized I hadn’t helped clean up the balcony.