Ed Begley Jr. was not quite sure what to expect back in 1994 when he agreed to create the role of Del in a new David Mamet play, "The Cryptogram," slated to have its world premiere at Boston's Repertory Theater. It was not only Begley's first role in a Mamet play--Mamet would direct.
Mamet had something of a reputation for being a tough customer; a recent New Yorker profile of the playwright notes that, over the years, so many people have written to complain about the profane poetry of his dialogue that Mamet finally had a form reply letter printed that read: "Too bad, you big crybaby."
But that's not the Mamet Ed Begley Jr. came to know over the course of performing the role first in Boston, then later at New York's Westside Theater, again under the playwright's direction. Unlike Mamet's onstage characters, he discovered the prolific director-playwright-screenwriter to be startlingly mild-mannered and engaging.
"I got to know him, and he's a very friendly fellow," Begley said during a recent rehearsal break at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse, where he will reprise his enigmatic role in the spare family drama "Cryptogram," this time directed by Michael Bloom. Begley also has a smaller role in Mamet's "The Old Neighborhood," a three-part saga of a man returning to the Chicago of his youth, playing in repertory with "Cryptogram" Wednesday through Feb.14.
"He is a very upbeat fellow, a funny fellow; he is something of a stand-up comic," Begley continued. "He comes in every day you work with him with at least three new jokes. He is friends with Jonathan Katz [writer of the cartoon "Dr. Katz"] and he is very into magic, sleight of hand. He has many interests. We have gone mountain biking, on occasion."
Begley first met Mamet when the playwright was lunching with TV producer Tom Fontana ("Homicide: Life on the Street," "St. Elsewhere"), and Begley, best known from his "St. Elsewhere" role as the eminently flappable Dr. Victor Erlich, stopped by to say hello. Begley was startled when Mamet told him, at that first meeting: "I have a play that I think you'd be right for."
"Cryptogram," set in 1959 in "a living room somewhere in America," tells the story of 10-year-old John (Will Rothaar in the Geffen production), as his mother (Christine Dunford) helps him prepare for a camping trip the next day with his father. Begley's Del is a family friend, a feckless librarian, who harbors a surprising streak of duplicity.
"I choose my words carefully, because I don't want to give away something important about him, but he is certainly a flawed character," Begley said. "Del is a man who is quite dramatic, he is given to hyperbole. He is also not the brightest bunny in the woods. I just find him very interesting to play, to make this guy real who is not entirely bright."
Director Bloom said it came as no surprise to him that Mamet would ask Begley to create the role of Del. "I think that Ed's kind of a chameleon, I don't think people have always seen that," Bloom said. "He really has a great ability to give you a lot of different temperatures; he is a very surprising actor. I think that this role really affords him an opportunity not only to use his humor, which is pretty wicked, but I think also to get across the character's vulnerability and sensitivity.
"Del's not bright, but he's sensitive, in an odd way, because he's a very closeted character--and I think Ed does a very good job of getting the clarity of such a withdrawn person across--I mean, the guy is a librarian. I think Ed does an amazing job of making that character clear."
Bloom added that he did not worry that Begley would not be open to a different style of direction than he got from Mamet. "[Begley] said: 'You know, it's going to be a different production, it's a chance to explore the play again.' I was just delighted with that answer, and he's done exactly that," Bloom said.
"I had a kind of different way that I heard the music of the play from the author's own way, even though I think it's not in opposition to what Mamet intended," Bloom continued. "The way I tried to approach it is, that you have to play the music, but that there also has to be a behavioral reality underneath the music to support it, so that you are not just listening to the crackle of dialogue.
"Mamet's lines actually scan poetically; they are iambic lines, at the same time, it has got to be part of the same sentence, that there has to be a truth in the delivery, otherwise it's nothing but words."
Begley says he is happy to be playing the role again, and remains intrigued by the fragmented intricacies of Mamet speech. "I find his dialogue very, very real. I find myself in life, listening to people in a shop nearby, or on a street, or on the bus when I came here [saying], 'Couldja, couldja, I wanna tell you something, you wanna go down to 4th, I mean the street behind . . . '--that's how people talk."
It is safe to say that Begley is one of few L.A. actors who allows himself the opportunity to hear people talking on buses. While Begley has maintained a busy career in series TV and appearing in movies since "St. Elsewhere" was canceled in 1988, this resident of a solar-powered home in Studio City has also devoted himself to environmental activism--a public stance that he notes wryly has frightened off more than one casting agent over the years.
Begley, who often finds himself cast as slightly goofy good guys, relishes the chance to play a slightly darker role. "It's nice to play a less-than-scrupulous individual," he said, with a somewhat mysterious smile.
* "The Cryptogram" and "The Old Neighborhood" open Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse in a one-night marathon, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Performances of the shows alternate Tuesday-Friday, with both shows performed most weekend days. For more information call (310) 208-5454, (213) 365-3500. Ends Feb. 14. Tickets $30-$40.