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Mamet Fires Off a Scorching Play

`The Cryptogram' rips the cover from a family's emotional life

THE CRYPTOGRAM. Play written and directed by David Mamet. At Suffolk University's C. Walsh Theatre through Feb. 26.

After taking in a David Mamet play, you find yourself listening to the way people talk and marveling that he got it right.

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The stops and starts, the repetitions and interruptions, the thousand little tangents and fumbling searches for the right word are all there. But for theatergoers expecting to hear eloquent - or at least semicoherent - phrases from actors' mouths, Mamet's plays can sound clipped, unnatural, and as grating as a broken record.

In the case of his latest work, ``The Cryptogram,'' the eloquence comes not so much from the jumble of words or communication misfires, but in spite of them. It's truly a play in which subtext rules. Presented as part of the American Repertory Theatre's New Stages program, ``Cryptogram'' is short - longer than a one-act, but not quite a full-length play. But in its 75-odd minutes, the drama takes audiences into the claustrophobic world of three people: a woman, her young son, and a family friend.

It's easily Mamet's most haunting and emotionally wrenching play, and the playwright's few enigmatic comments about its origin give rise to speculation that ``Cryptogram'' parallels some events in his own childhood. If that is true, one should pity the Mamet household.

The play, which Mamet also directed, starts off with an average domestic scene in a 1950s-era living room. Donny, the mother, is trying to get her son to go to bed. Her friend, Del, lounges in a tattered easy chair, bantering absently with the boy while flipping through a magazine. Everyone tries to appear normal, but undercurrents of restlessness and frustration seep through, disrupting the boy John's sleeping habits and setting his mother on edge. Del, too, knows more than he lets on. They are all waiting for Robert, the husband, to come home.

John is a bright, perceptive 10-year-old. Clearly sensing that something terrible is about to happen to his family, he begins to have thoughts that won't let him sleep. He pesters his mother with endless questions, illuminating a troubled state of mind.

Donny is too wrapped up in her own worries to put his fears to rest, and she alternates between pleading and demanding. Their relationship creates the play's perilous emotional pitch.

It's quickly apparent that Robert is not coming back. His wife, burdened with both the abandonment and having to explain Robert's absence to her son, becomes distraught. She lashes out at John in a chilling scene that demonstrates how thin the line can be between emotional and physical child abuse.

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Characteristically, the playwright offers no easy hero or villain: John, with his constant questions, precociousness, and disobedience would try any mother's patience, and Donny, while hardly a model parent, has been pushed to the breaking point. Del forms the awkward third leg of the triangle, and fails Donny at the last moment.

Such are the skills of Felicity Huffman (who plays Donny), Shelton Dane (as young John), and Ed Begley Jr. (Del), that we see the characters' weaknesses but still can't lay blame. As Mamet did so effectively in ``Oleanna,'' he once again forces us to draw our own conclusions.

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