Martin McDonagh’s emotionally intense but structurally sprawling opus The Pillowman has taken root for a two-week production by Variations Theatre Group at the Chain Theatre in Queens. This small but, thankfully, comfortable space is perfect for this big snarl of a play about a totalitarian regime investigating a meek writer of nightmarish tales and his volatile brain-damaged brother.
The Pillowman is a story about stories, how we build our lives out of them by telling them to others but more importantly by fixing them in our own minds. Katurian (a masterful performance by an indefatigable Kirk Gostkowski) works in an abbatoir by day to support himself and his brother, but by night cranks out a flurry of short stories mostly about children being horribly abused and murdered. Brought in for questioning after a few real-life murders modeled on his fictitious ones, Katurian alternately cowers and fights back against buttoned-up by-the-books “good cop” Tupolski (an evilly straight-up Deven Anderson) and angry, violent Ariel (an equally effective Paul Terkel) as his brother Michal (a knockout turn by Kyle Kirkpatrick) is apparently being tortured in the next room.
Katurian tells a few of his key stories, sometimes by stepping out of the action to address the audience, with crudely effective comic-style projections illustrating the action, and other times by soothing Michal with them. One tale reveals the brothers’ superhero-style “origin story.” Another uncloaks something about Katurian’s damaged psyche. Still, not much is certain in McDonagh’s twisted narrative. Except death.
The playwright is unstinting in his depiction of the cruel, murderous underside of human nature, manifested both in individual souls and in institutions. And the production, directed with concise assurance by Greg Cicchino and acted with stark focus by the fine cast centered by Gotkowski’s smashing performance, confronts head-on the story’s ferocious flaying of what we like to think of as the benevolent and rational sides of our nature.
The Olivier- and Tony-winning play was a sensation on London and Broadway stages a decade ago when it starred, respectively, David Tennant and Billy Crudup as Katurian. But Variations Theatre Group proves, if it needed proof, that this monstrous black comedy is right at home in an intimate theater as well. Just over the East River in Long Island City, Queens – a quick subway ride from Manhattan – it’s easily one of the best revivals on the Off-Off-Broadway scene this year. It runs through October 3. Tickets are available online or at 866-811-4111.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0822221004][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0413713504][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0375704876]