You might not like it, but The Pillowman has got your number. Martin McDonagh’s satisfyingly vicious play knows you a bit better than you do, and to see Studio’s production is to let it get its tiny, filthy hooks in your flesh. It’ll take you to places you won’t relish going, and you’ll leave the theater feeling implicated in its grisly goings-on.
Sound like fun? In its own nasty way, it is, because Studio’s staging, helmed by artistic director Joy Zinoman, hits the mark: It’s violent but not punishingly so, dark but brightened by flashes of grim humor that keep the mood from turning dour. As for what it’s about, one character makes as good an elevator pitch as any: “A writer in a totalitarian state is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories and their similarities to a number of child-murders that are happening in his town.”
That’s Katurian (Tom Story), early in the second act. It’s just occurred to him that the very recent events of his life sound like the stories he writes—stories that have, for some reason, left him in a cell with his mentally handicapped brother Michal (Aaron Muñoz). Over the course of the play, several of Katurian’s stories are presented in highly stylized vignettes full of smoke, scrims, and red ribbons for blood. The stage magic contrasts sharply with the gunmetal gray of Katurian and Michal’s cell. Set designer Debra Booth allows elements of one reality to leach into the other; behind even the most cartoonishly colored vignette, a black metal gridwork looms, subtly echoing the plate-metal walls of Katurian’s interrogation room.
That the play is about storytelling has been its go-to précis since its 2003 London premier, but McDonagh seems less interested in the narrative act itself and more concerned with the effect a certain kind of tale has on us, the listeners. Take Katurian’s stories. All of them—those we see enacted and those the characters simply read aloud—are ingeniously wrought gems of pure wickedness. They are also, not for nothing, seriously twisted. Ghastly and flecked with gore, they trade on shock and grossouts and end on hairpin turns. In other words, they’re exactly the kind of stuff (Grimm’s fairy tales, Shockhead Peter, EC Comics) we used to tell our kids, way back in the Time Before Noggin.
There is one difference, and it’s a biggie: The stories told in are not cautionary tales with tidy moral lessons. Instead, cruelties are visited upon characters for reasons they don’t understand. Of one such tale, Katurian says, “That’s a good story. That’s something-esque.” The “something” he’s reaching for there is Kafka. The Pillowman owes much to the nightmarish violence of “In the Penal Colony” and to similar blood-soaked tales throughout the ages—everything from Oedipus’ plucked-out peepers to Grand Guignol What unites them all is The Pillowman’s real subject: the allure of the lurid.
Any story that truly reflected the “banality of evil” would, after all, make for a sucky beach read. That’s why the thriller genre exists and why serial killers in popular entertainment don’t set about filleting innocents until first coordinating their schedules around phases of the moon or deadly sins or which kind of civil servant goes best with a Chianti Classico. And somebody has to come up with all that wet nastiness and devise the baroque methodology required to torture characters so tortuously. McDonagh wants us to ponder: Who writes this sick stuff?
Enter Katurian. When we first meet him in the interrogation room, he is frantically dismissing his own work out of fear for his freedom and his life. “I’m not trying to say anything at all!” he insists. “That’s my whole thing.” His interrogators, the incongruously affable Tupolski (Denis Arndt, giving the show’s best-written role a breezily sinister spin) and the belligerent Ariel (Hugh Nees, in full-on pit-bull mode) aren’t buying it. We don’t either, because Tom Story is so effective and affecting as Katurian; he lets us glimpse, peeping out from behind his mounting dread, the oblivious writerly pride that will probably seal the man’s doom.
There’s a moment early on when Tupolski is clucking his tongue over one of Katurian’s grisly tales (which, in a nice touch, are represented by grimy sheets of onionskin typewriter paper). Even as he slumps in weary submission, Story’s eyes start to twinkle while Tupolski reads aloud. Every bad thing that will happen to Katurian over the course of the play has its roots in that moment, and Story nails it.
It’s harder to divine a similar arc in Muñoz’s performance. A lot of that’s in the writing—Michal’s ability to perceive and articulate his situation is all over the place. But Muñoz has also been directed to go very big in his first few minutes onstage, which doesn’t leave the actor anywhere to go and serves only to highlight the script’s inconsistency.
The Pillowman adopts the structure of a police procedural and eventually resolves its central mystery in a surprisingly satisfying manner. (Note to the red-green color-blind: There’s a big reveal near the end you might need help with.) But it also poses a couple of questions that are less readily answered: Why are we so drawn to this sick stuff, anyway? And, more important: What does it do to us? The characters find their own unhappy answers. When the lights come up, you’ll probably still be struggling with yours.