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Billy Crudup as Katurian in Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman"
Interrogating Drama
By Caridad Svich

The Pillowman
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 begins.

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 The detainee is a mostly unpublished short story writer named Katurian (played by Billy Crudup), who composes macabre fairy tales that are equal parts Heinrich Hoffman and Stephen King.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 older brother.

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 place?

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 any profundity.

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 vision.

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.

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