When Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman opened in the spring of 1995, I was its biggest advocate. I thought the balance of black, black humor and serious discussion of the consequences of art was extraordinary. I was too big a fan perhaps. It may have been ill-advised of me to insist to Brían O'Bryne, at that time starring in Doubt, how The Pillowman should win a Tony for Best New Drama. Doubt won that Tony.
The Astoria Performing Arts Center features The Pillowman as its first mainstage production this 2009-10 season. It is a daring beginning. The Pillowman is a difficult play and couldn't be further from some of APAC's previous productions, Ragtime for example. The stark contrast is intentional, said both executive director Taryn Drongowski and artistic director Tom Wojtunik. In their opinions, a divisive play, like The Pillowman, is necessary for the growth of the young theatre company.
Just how fractious a play is The Pillowman? When it first appeared on the British stage, one reviewer wrote that it was "a hopelessly disorganized play in which the action keeps grinding to a halt so the main character can read out one of a half dozen or so interminable short stories. It felt less like an evening at the theatre than being trapped in a Creative Writing Workshop." That critic left during intermission.
Here in New York City, our own Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Post: "who said that child torture, murder and mutilation can't be funny?" Mr. Barnes obviously liked the play.
It may be hard to imagine how child torture, murder and mutilation can be funny, but in Martin McDonagh's world, it is. McDonagh, famously Anglo-Irish, usually sets his play in statistically overly murderous rural Irish towns. The Pillowman is his only drama set outside of Ireland. The distance improves the drama.
The setting is a nameless, rather timeless, vaguely Eastern European totalitarian state. The action is storytelling – storytelling in both its sense, as narrative and as misrepresentation. Stories loop continuously throughout the familiar bad cop/good cop interview room scenario.
A writer (Avery Clark) is brought in for questioning about crimes that may or may not have something to do with his stories, most of which have gone unpublished. I know. Unpublished. It gets more horrific than that.
The crimes target children, and the methods of murder mimic those found in the writer's tales. The police question the writer, but the writer doesn't understand. "He wants us to think that he thinks that all we've got against him is a disagreement with his…prose style" states Officer Tupolski emphatically.
Avery Clark (Katurian) and Seth Duerr (Tupolski). Photo: Jen Maufrais Kelly
The performance of the role of the writer is pivotal to the play. Mr. Clark is all appropriate earnestness about his concerns over the crimes, the perpetrator (is it or isn't it the writer's brother?), and most of all, his efforts at writing. What is also necessary, besides the sincerity, is the artist's self-delusion. Katurian Katurian, for that is indeed his name, is clueless.
As played by Mr. Clark, Katurian is the self-conscious artist, but there should also be a creeping element of illusion. In describing one of his stories, he declares it to be "good"; by the end of the sentence, he is defending the story (a horrible story in all ways) as "having nothing wrong with it." Katurian is not a hero and shouldn't be played as one. A definition of art as something that "has nothing wrong with it" is not a principle to defend with one's life.
Katurian is not the noble artist – he is simply a writer who is in desperate need of a good editor.
I give a great deal of credit to McDonagh for being able to weave this elaborate joke, aimed at himself and all writers, all artists. There is no limit to the depths of self-delusion about one's own creative process: That story I wrote? "That's a good story. That's something – esque."
Interestingly enough, as so often happens Katurian is quietly competent as a critic or editor of others' stories, pointing out the "inconsistencies" in the policeman's own attempt at storytelling. However, Katurian is confused in just about everything else, and that's a pretty funny place for a writer to put a writer.
The role of the brain-damaged brother is a troublesome one. "Itchy arse" jokes certainly have their place, but let's just say that it lowers the level of discourse some. A role of cheap laughs, Katurian's brother, Michal, is easy to dislike on paper, but there is no denying it seems an actor's joy to play. Michael Stuhlbarg originated the role on Broadway (not a household name, except that he is the lead in the latest Coen Brothers movie).
Nathan Brisby has as much fun with the role as I have seen anyone have, dealing with the incongruities in story and character. Michal is a child in his mind but uses words like "minimum" and "execute" and "criticize." When it suits McDonagh, Michal is more than his brother's most enthusiastic audience, he is also his most discerning reader. For awhile, he is the writer's only reader, until the police raid their apartment and discover Katurian's 400 stories.
Nathan Brisby (Michal) and Avery Clark (Katurian). Photo: Jen Maufrais Kelly
Michal insists on holding his brother's efforts up to some sort of standard, as arbitrary as that may be. In a under-explored aspect of The Pillowman, Michal is examining reality, choosing reality – with disastrous results. When Katurian gets a glimpse of reality, he resorts to murder.
Most of the humor of the play comes from the mismatched pair of cops who interrogate the writer. Tupolski (Seth Duerr) is all snide remarks and understatements. Ariel (Richard D. Busser) is the "bulldog of a policeman," the brawn of the operation. Ariel's name alone carries too much symbolism – the Lion of God, Shakespeare's sprite, and a little mermaid. Clichés are what drives much of this comedy, and inversion of expectations are what constitutes dramatic tension.
Instead of avoiding the clichés, McDonagh embraces them. At one point, Tupolski exclaims at just how tired he is of everyone using their abusive childhoods to excuse their bad behavior: "My father was a violent alcoholic so am I a violent alcoholic?…Yes but that is my personal choice." These moments must be absurdly funny in order to balance the tragedies.
Karen Stanion is excellent as the many mothers of the play. She makes the most of her brief appearances on stage. Her presence is noteworthy in a play that depicts women as either monsters or young victims. This is in no way a feminist screed against McDonagh's play. I am not calling for more female characters. I've seen what Mr. McDonagh does to the women in his play (the carnage of Beauty Queen of Lenane anyone?). It is just as well that he leaves this fictional police state in the hands of men.
An equal opportunity portrayer of "slaughter," Mr. McDonagh has as many wicked fathers as he has wicked mothers – the father here well played by Justin Herfel.
The rest of the cast, the children, are Anthony Peierini as the Boy and Jordan Bloom as the Girl, two particularly brave performances and impressive additions to beginning resumes. The children suffer horribly in this play, and this is made more surprising, by all accounts, by the fact that McDonagh had a perfectly happy childhood.
APAC's stage design (Stephen Dobay) was very impressive. Although the stark setting for the police station is simplicity, the tableaux that need to be set up around the station must have been demanding.
Katurian challenges the policemen (and the audience) who dismiss his stories: "Are you trying to say that I shouldn't write stories with child killings in because in the real world there are child killings?" Are we saying that? No. But we can insist that the stories be good stories. The Pillowman, both Katurian's and McDonagh's, is a good story. Now to go back to the 400 unpublished theatre reviews in my basement…
The Pillowman runs through November 21 at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, Astoria, Queens.