The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. Directed by John Crowley. Scenic and costume design by Scott Pask. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Paul Arditti. Music by Paddy Cunneen. Cast: Billy Crudup, Jeff Goldblum, Željko Ivanek, Michael Stuhlbarg, with Jesse Shane Bronstein, Kate Gleason, Rick Holmes, Ted Koch, Madeleine Martin, Colby Minifie, Virginia Louise Smith.
When a story is good, it's irresistible: How easy is it even for adults to turn up their noses at a children's tale if it's charmingly written and engagingly presented? And don't children love to be scared? And don't many people count on just about anything new and different to give them the satisfaction that coarsely manufactured, run-of-the-mill entertainment so seldom provides?
If you've been feeling that way about much of the current Broadway season, the cure you need might have arrived at the Booth. The play that just opened there, Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, addresses not only the terrifying and redemptive power of stories and the hold they can exert on us, but spins a spellbinding yarn of its own along the way.
It's not exactly a surprise that McDonagh is able to so precisely balance the two, or that he injects this play with a healthy dose of his characteristic macabre sensibility. But it's good that he's again doing it on Broadway, from which he's been absent since The Lonesome West closed after a brief run in 1999. While he hasn't been entirely absent from New York stages since - Roundabout produced his A Skull in Connemara in 2001 - his once bright star hasn't been shining quite as much recently.
With The Pillowman, which is among McDonagh's least bloody and most mainstream works to date, that's likely to change: Yes, it keeps you at a safe distance, but it also draws you in; yes, it's intentionally unnerving, but also provides occasional glimpses of heart and inspiration along the way. It capitalizes on the basest of human fears and insecurities, as well as the kind of mordant atmosphere - and watchability - that permeated the grimmer episodes of the original incarnation of The Twilight Zone. In accordance with that genre, specifics about the circumstances at work here are deliberately left murky.
Yet McDonagh provides enough details to start the story in high gear. We know that the show takes place in a labyrinthine law-enforcement enclosure in a totalitarian country, where there's no discernible difference between the government, the police, and the media. We know that a young man named Katurian (Billy Crudup) has been brought in for questioning, ostensibly about a series of short stories he's written in which children frequently meet bitterly brutal ends. And we know that his interrogators - Tupolski (Jeff Goldblum) and Ariel (Željko Ivanek) - are holding Katurian's somewhat slow brother Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg) in a nearby cell. McDonagh allows us few other certainties.
Instead, he chooses to warp fact and fiction until it's impossible to differentiate the two. It's not just the pseudo-Orwellian mind games that Katurian, Tupolski, and Ariel play with each other, but the ways in which Katurian's stories grow in importance with respect to the crimes he's allegedly committed, and cast so much doubt on the interrogators' charges, Michal's degree of responsibility, and how much any of this can be believed, that the exact truth isn't entirely known even when the final curtain comes down.
Despite this, there's nothing confusing or underhanded about the show; McDonagh and director John Crowley play no cheap tricks. They simply give every line and every moment the kind of gripping intensity needed to establish and maintain a world that's not our own but is still harrowingly believable. Scott Pask's foreboding metal-wall set, Brian MacDevitt's piercing lights, and Paul Arditti's spine-tingling sound-design make it difficult to escape from the world of The Pillowman once you've succumbed to it (which doesn't take long).
The title, by the way, derives from one of Katurian's stories, about a friendly, fluffy fellow who encourages children to commit suicide to prevent them from leading terrible lives. This, like Katurian's other writings (particularly one that mirrors his and his brother's dysfunctional childhood) is serious stuff; it's perhaps for this reason that it's easiest to appreciate McDonagh's adroit - and shocking - use of humor. A work like this could easily be filled only with unrelenting gloom and terror, but McDonagh's tempering it with laughs has resulted in one of the funniest Broadway shows of the season.
The jokes land so well mostly because of Goldblum, who takes a while to relax into his role but eventually becomes a comic dynamo capable of bringing down the house with a number of unexpected yet appropriate laugh lines. As Ariel, Ivanek is more overtly sadistic, even violent, but gives his character enough layers to make him likable in his own unusual way. Stuhlbarg is equal parts moving, amusing, and creepy as Michal, his endearingly droning voice masking the real, frightening person who only slowly emerges.
But it's Crudup who has the toughest task - he's required to not only create a character who's both likable in his speech and manner but demented in his worldview, but to narrate the presentation of Katurian's stories as they are occasionally acted out onstage. He fills both roles beautifully, making Katurian sympathetic and scary, and spinning those stories with great passion. Though these stories, which tell about a writer and his brother (who's mercilessly tortured by their parents) or a young girl whose fascination with Jesus becomes her undoing, are terrifically enacted onstage by Ted Koch, Virginia Louise Smith, Jesse Shane Bronstein, and Madeleine Martin, it's Crudup who really shines as the twisted mastermind behind them.
McDonagh is no less brilliant, and his control over the proceedings is equally absolute, and welcome. To be guided through the distressing corridors of a play like this one by a guide of McDonagh's skill and subtlety is welcome in a theatrical year where the tendency has been to hit audiences over the head with more and more about less and less. You may be disturbed or you may be unsettled by The Pillowman, but even if you experience a sleepless night or two, it's worth it for this heady dream of a show.