By Caridad Svich
By Martin McDonagh
The Booth Theatre
222 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200
Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman opens
on the figure of a blindfolded man seated in a chair in a nondescript
interrogation room. After a silence, two detectives enter. The familiar
crime-genre scene of a detainee interrogated by a good cop/bad cop team
Information is doled out quickly. The detainee
is a mostly unpublished short story writer named Katurian (played by
Billy Crudup), who composes macabre fairy tales that are equal parts
Heinrich Hoffman and Stephen King. The low-level detectives Tupolski
and Ariel (played by Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek) work for a totalitarian
dictatorship, and they have arrested Katurian because his stories seem
to have influenced three copycat murders of young children. As the scene
unfolds, we discover, as his screams are heard from an adjoining room,
that Katurian's slow-witted brother Michal (played by Michael Stuhlbarg)
has also been arrested. The detectives cajole, taunt and terrorize Katurian
in a witty variation on familiar TV police drama.
In the twilit scene that follows, Katurian tells
the peculiar story of a young writer and his brother. Through stylized
peepshow re-enactments above and behind him, we witness Katurian's parents
decide to make their son into a successful writer by subjecting him
to the nightly screams of his older brother, whom they torture repeatedly
in extreme ways. When the child asks about the screams, the parents
deny them but encourage Katurian to keep writing and use the strange
"nightmares" to fuel his imagination. When the young man finds
out the truth, he kills his parents and rescues his now brain-damaged
At this point the play shifts back to the present,
with Michal seated in a large prison cell listening to Katurian's screams.
The sadistic police are now torturing him. The thread of violence, damage
and abuse is what holds these brothers together. Katurian is thrown
into the cell with Michal, and they confront the cycle of violent trauma
that has destroyed their lives. The piquantly disturbing irony is that
this very cycle has created Katurian's ability to spin haunting, if
sensationalistic stories, just as his parents had planned.
In this freewheeling, mostly legato scene between
the brothers--which particularly showcases Stuhlbarg's affecting portrayal
of Michal--McDonagh explores the alarmingly suggestive power of literature
and the psychological blur that can occur between reality and fiction.
The dark heart of the play is contained in this scene, and if I don't
divulge any more of the plot, it's because the play depends in great
part on the suspense endemic to its thriller genre.
McDonagh's penchant for propping up his plays
by using the familiar frames of established genres is as apparent here
as it was in his acclaimed Leenane trilogy and The Cripple of Inishmaan.
Although The Pillowman starts out as a tragically absurdist,
self-aware policier reminiscent of Kafka, it abandons itself
to the more conventionally well-oiled machinations of the thriller (emphasized
by Paddy Cuneen's music and Paul Arditti's sound design), even though
the whodunit aspect of the story is resolved relatively early on.
McDonagh and director John Crowley (who also
staged the play in its London premiere last season) set out to expose
the mechanisms of terror and desire that are intrinsic to the genre,
not only through the telling of Katurian's story but also through the
staging of some of his fictions throughout the evening. Working expectations
and reactions in cleverly astringent, if sometimes overly indulgent,
Tarantino-like maneuvers, McDonagh and his talented artistic team toy
with extreme comedy and violence to arouse and discomfort their audience.
While The Pillowman is ostensibly about the power of literature
and its inherent threat to a censorious, dictatorial government, it
is more about the act of reading and viewing: how does a story affect
us, and what are the emotional triggers that draw us in in the first
McDonagh is a provocateur, and while there is
no denying his skill and guile as a dramatist working in a popular form,
there is something hollow at the heart of this play. His chilly reserve
is to be welcomed, and his strategies for laying bare the erotica of
violence, of sanctioned and unsanctioned sadomasochistic pain and pleasure
(echoes of Abu Ghraib), are effective. The play's grander ambitions,
however, which speak to key questions of how societies are run and individuals
are besieged by threats to their imagination and free will, are less
convincing. The prose style and content of Katurian's stories, which
are relayed often during the evening as suggestive examples of twisted
morality tales for children (such as the Hoffman tales in Shockheaded
Peter), border constantly on the banal. The images of violence
the stories conjure are gruesome but not potent enough to resonate with
This may be indeed McDonagh's point: that the
stories we tell now in a media-saturated, violent world can only be
banal and lurid. But if we are to take his larger idea seriously--that
Katurian's stories are destined to outlive him, that their power is
too great to be dismissed--then the surface banality of the stories
is problematic. Trading in the language of Grimm's fairy tales is not
the same as reproducing their enduring psychological weight and disturbance.
Their primal element, and the way they are embedded in our psyches almost
like the myths of ancient Greece, are not honored fully enough in McDonagh's
The cheapness of horror rather than its essentially
disruptive and liberating aspect seems to be what McDonagh is after
as a comment on our tawdry world. His emphasis on telling the story
through the eyes of trauma victims--as a sort of confessional recovery--recalls
the commonplace Jerry Springer-like talk shows that have cheapened our
national discourse, particularly since 9/11. Unlike, for example, Sarah
Kane's Blasted, with which Pillowman shares major
themes, McDonagh's cathartic despair is intimated but never fully released.
Although he is extremely well served by his artistic collaborators (and
special mention must be made of Jeff Goldblum's razor-sharp wit and
Zeljko Ivanek's wiliness), as the evening unfolds the play erases itself
until we are left with the disconsolate image of a fire burning: the
Promethean fire of literature itself waiting to be unleashed.