Ten-year-old John can't sleep. He's excited at the prospect of a father-son camping trip that is due to begin the next day, and is eagerly awaiting his father's arrival. As time passes, and his father still doesn't return home, the youngster must struggle to decode the unusual behavior of the adults around him in the hopes of unraveling the riddle of his father's disappearance.
Solving that mystery and the other enigmas in David Mamet's "The Cryptogram" will be a challenge for both the characters in the play and the people in the audience when the Yale Repertory Theatre presents the playwright's portrait of American family life as its second offering of the 1996-97 season. Directed by Yale alumnus Mark Rucker, "The Cryptogram" will officially open on Tuesday, Nov. 19 -- previews begin Thursday, Nov. 14 -- and continue through Saturday, Dec. 7.
First produced in London in 1994, "The Cryptogram" garnered an Obie Award during its run in Manhattan's Westside Theatre the following year. The drama is set in 1959 and features three characters: the aforementioned John; Donny, his mother; and Del, a close friend of the family. Robert, the missing father, "is an important character although he never comes on stage," says Samantha Rachel Rabetz, the dramaturg for the Yale Rep production. "He's the one person these three other people need in order to figure out what's going on."
There are, in fact, "lots of puzzles that need to be solved in the play," notes Ms. Rabetz, adding that this may call for some "keen listening" on the part of the audience. "Mamet writes like a cryptogram, using as few words as possible," she says. "He doesn't lay it all out like a lot of naturalistic playwrights would. You, as an audience member, need to figure out what is really being said."
In fact, much of the dialogue consists of interrupted thoughts and incomplete sentences. "Mamet tends to write in verse," explains Ms. Rabetz, and because of this, reading his dialogue on the page can be disconcerting. "However, when you hear the rhythm as it's spoken, it starts to sound like real life," she says. "It sounds the way people really speak."
Uncovering the deeper truths in the play is made even more challenging by the fact that the play is set in the repressive 1950s,. "Information is suppressed as long as possible. Had Mamet set this play in the 1980s or 1990s, the story would have to have been told very differently," she notes.
Warning that "a cryptogram is not necessarily something you may be able to decode," Ms. Rabetz admits that audience members may leave the performance with parts of the puzzle still unsolved. "In fact, audience members might want to see the play again, so they can piece it all together," she says. In addition, the playwright deliberately ends the drama with "some real question marks," she notes. "One of the biggest questions at the end of the play is: Will these characters learn from these events, or will they be crippled by them?"
This is the second time that the Yale Rep has presented a play by Mr. Mamet in recent years, having staged his "Oleanna" in 1993. The playwright's many works include the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Glengarry Glen Ross," "American Buffalo," "Speed-the-Plow" and "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," among others.
This is the third time that Mr. Rucker, a 1992 graduate of the School of Drama, will return to his alma mater to direct a play at the Yale Rep. He also directed last season's revival of "Landscape of the Body" and "Twelfth Night" in 1994. He is currently an associate artist at California's South Coast Repertory, where he directed the premiere of Roger Rueff's "So Many Words," among other works.
Award-winning actress and playwright Ellen McLaughlin will appear in the role of Donny. Ms. McLaughlin originated the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner's two-part work "Angels in America," from its inception through its Broadway run. The part of Del will be played by Stephen Spinella, who earned Tony and Drama Desk awards for his work in both of the Broadway productions of "Angels in America." Mr. Spinella also received an Obie Award for "Love! Valor! Compassion!" at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Portraying John will be Gabriel Millman, a 10-year-old actor who has performed frequently in television commercials, voice-overs and jingles, and who has a principal role in Woody Allen's latest film, "Everyone Says I Love You."
Also collaborating on the play are set designer Lauren Kurki, costume designer Walt Spangler, lighting designer Susan Hamburger, sound designer Catherine D. Mardis and stage manager Marjorie Craig Mitchell.
Ticket prices for "The Cryptogram" range are $25-$30, with group discounts available. The Yale Rep also offers a variety of season subscription packages for $66-$205; student passes are $48. For further information, call the Yale Rep box office at 432-1234.