"There are no happy endings in real life," says the put-upon writer in "The Pillowman," Martin McDonagh's nightmarish hallucination of a play expertly realized in a mesmerizing production that opened Sunday at Broadway's Booth Theatre.
The same could be said for much of what happens on stage at the Booth where the horrific world created by McDonagh, author of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Cripple of lnishmaan," unfolds with a macabre intensity seldom felt in the theater.
For sheer theatrical terror - not to mention the blackest of humor, it would be hard to top McDonagh's disturbing play.
We are in a vaguely Eastern European totalitarian state, where the writer, with the odd, repetitive name of Katurian K. Katurian, is being questioned about a series of murders of children who have died particularly gruesome deaths.
The antsy Katurian, portrayed by a credibly agitated Billy Crudup, has been hauled in because his short stories bear a striking resemblance to the way these youngsters died. Could there be a connection?
Not only is Katurian in prison - a forbidding, high-walled dungeon created by designer Scott Pask - but his mentally disabled brother, Michal, is in an adjoining cell and is being questioned, too.
It's not fair to give away too much of the plot in "The Pillowman" because much of the play's strength lies in the element of surprise. McDonagh can deliver quite a jolt, particularly under the inspired direction of John Crowley who has staged the production with the razor-edge precision.
Let's just say that a lot of the play involves storytelling, the acting out of many of the writer's ghoulish tales, stories that are sort of a cross between the Brothers Grimm and Edward Gorey, with a bit of Freddy Krueger thrown in for good measure.
Katurian's' interrogators are the epitome of "good cop, bad cop," a Mutt-and-Jeff duo who take turns in questioning the prisoner. The lead detective is played by Jeff Goldblum, giving a sardonic performance that tempers practicality with a fine sense of the absurd.
A fiercely combative Zeljko Ivanek portrays Goldblum's sadistic sidekick, a tightly coiled man who immediately wants to torture the inmate to get the information they seek.
Yet the play's most accomplished writing occurs in a scene when Katurian and his childlike brother, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, are placed together in the same cell. There is a sweet-tempered give-and-take between the two siblings. It's the storyteller and an eager, appealing audience of one in perfect harmony - before the unexpected happens.
Stuhlbarg, a lumpish, baby-faced man, gives one of those extraordinary performances that seems so astonishingly real that you can't quite believe it is acting. And Crudup serves as a gracious straightman to the histrionics of the less fortunate brother.
The London-born McDonagh has a wicked, often unnerving sense of what is funny, much of it involving pain.
Consider what happens to that gorgon of a mother in "Beauty Queen," a woman who meets an untimely end, and the Cain-and-Abel mayhem between two brothers in "The Lonesome West," one of McDonagh's more underappreciated plays.
In "The Pillowman," violence arrives in the telling of those stories. The play's title, by the way, is also the name of one of Katurian's short stories. At the center of the tale is a 9-foot creature, made up entirely of fluffy pink pillows.
He's an obliging fellow whose job is to get children to kill themselves -before they have a chance to live a disappointing life.
It's a fearful image - one that haunts the play and one which lingers long after the curtain has come down. You will see this "Pillowman" in your dreams.
Child abuse, murder, sadism and torture are unlikely fodder for laughs in "The Pillowman," Martin McDonagh's dense, disturbing and wickedly funny psychological thriller.
Fans of the Irish playwright, best known for his "Connemara Trilogy" (which includes the Tony-winning "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," "A Skull in Connemara" and "The Lonesome West") are by now well-versed in McDonagh's unique blend of onstage violence and macabre humor.
But "The Pillowman," which debuted at the Royal National Theater in London, ups the ante considerably with a squirm-inducing storyline containing several neat twists and turns.
Eschewing Ireland as his usual backdrop, McDonagh sets up the plot as a Kafkaesque nightmare.
A short story writer (played by Billy Crudup) is being interrogated by a pair of thuggish policemen (played by Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek) in an unnamed totalitarian state.
The initial impression is that the writer, Katurian K. Katurian, has been placed under arrest because his fiction is deemed subversive.
But in the first of many surprises, it's clear that Katurian's body of work seems far more dangerous to society than merely that.
His horrific fairy tales make Wes Craven look like Mother Goose. Children are repeatedly maimed, killed, buried alive and even crucified - and now there's a serial killer on the loose performing the same exact dastardly deeds on real-life kids.
Considering only one of Katurian's 400 stories has ever been published - and it was his only sunny story, at that - suspicion fails on the writer and his slow-witted brother, Michal (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), who is likewise being grilled and tortured in the dim, dank cell next door.
Crudup succeeds in conveying Katurian's complex psyche and shifting moods that range from rage to arrogance and from terror and confusion to brotherly concern. in his brief appearance, Stuhlbarg is memorable as Katurian's loving, brain-damaged brother who may not be as childlike as he appear. In a work with such dark and stomach-churning themes, comic relief is essential, and "The Pillowman" mercifully doesn't lack for laughs.
Goldblum, as lead investigator Tupolski, is as funny as he is menacing. Ivanek is excellent as a policeman with secrets of his own, and especially shines when their good cop/bad cop routine is turned on its ear.
John Crowley, who also directed the London production of "The Pillowman," keeps the suspense flowing, but a good part of the show's appeal belongs to set designer Scott Pask.
Most of the action unfolds in the barren interrogation room, but Katurian's flashbacks, and the acting-out of his stories, takes place in tiny, surreal rooms above the stage that resemble scenes out of a demented children's book.
Those scenes provide welcome humor in a play that will linger like a bad dream.
Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," which opened last night at the Booth Theatre, is an extraordinary play, a macabre fantasy, a horror ride in some theme park of the mind.
You emerge having been thrilled, entertained and disorientedly amused, perhaps guiltily so. Then again, who said child torture, murder and mutilation can't be funny?
Well, the British have a way with such things. Just think of the Grimm-style, comic-book horrors of off-Broadway's "Shockheaded Peter."
But "The Pillowman" is far more than brilliant graveyard wit, even when it suggests a dazzling mix of Charles Addams and Kafka.
McDonagh's multi-layered universe eerily conveys an awesome, upside-down world view where life is cynically brutalized and only art, however horribly reflective of society, holds a chance of survival.
What could have been a smug fortune-cookie message - life bad, art good - isn't, thanks to McDonagh's electrifying writing, bolstered by director John Crowley's brilliantly taut staging and Scott Pask's wildly imaginative designs.
"The Pillowman" starts with a cell scene of a rather mysterious interrogation, as a tousled, bewildered victim, a writer named Katurian K. Katurian (Billy Crudup), blindly faces a good cop/bad cop team.
While Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg), Katurian's mentally retarded brother, is apparently being noisily tortured in an adjoining cell, Katurian himself is being questioned, threatened and bullied by the suavely sinister Detective Topolski (Jeff Goldblum) and his fellow cop, the trigger-happy torture fiend Ariel (Zeljko Ivanek).
Katurian's crime appears ridiculous: He is accused of writing oddly horrific short stories that have led to copycat murders, although the only significant story he's had published was (nudge, nudge) in a newspaper called Libertad.
The scene is obvious, isn't it? It is a tale told by a patriot of a Mitteleuropa police state, and the ambiguous terrors of non-conformity. But is it? Not exactly.
There is more to Katurian and his unfortunate brother than meets the eye. There's also more to their police antagonists.
This is the second dazzling play to come this season from Britain's Royal National Theatre, and like the first, Michael Frayn's "Democracy," it is a reproduction of the original London staging, albeit with American actors.
This bait-and-switch policy worked disastrously for "Democracy," leaving a wonderful play fatally undermined by a worthy but inferior cast.
No such worries for "The Pillowman." The cast here is as good, if not better, than the one in London.
Crudup - bewildered, sullen, compassionate and bitter by turn -gives an amazingly intense performance, full of unexpected twists and turns. Stuhlbarg's pitiable yet horrifying brother Michal is heart-rending, and the guard-dog ferocity revealed by Ivanek as the feral, nasty, chip-on-shoulder cop, Ariel, burns steadily throughout the play.
The showiest part is Goldblum's Topolski, and for the play's first few minutes, he looked as if he might be going over the top. Once settled, though, he proved a wonderful combination of the ludicrous and the deadly.
This may not be a play for either the faint-hearted or the unthoughtful, but with it McDonagh, previously much admired for his black Irish comedies ("The Beauty Queen of Leenane," among them) stakes his claim to being the best English-speaking playwright of his generation.
Comedies don't come any blacker than "The Pillowman," the spellbinding stunner of a play by Martin McDonagh that opened last night at the Booth Theater, starring Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum. Even those familiar with this British dramatist's blithe way with murder, mutilation and dismemberment, from works like "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "A Skull in Connemara," may be jolted by the events described and simulated so picturesquely in his latest offering. (Advisory note: severed fingers and heads, electric drills, barbed wire and premature burial all figure prominently.)
The laughs elicited by "The Pillowman" are the kind that trail into gulps and gasps, appropriate to a show that concerns a man under suspicion of torturing and killing children with no mercy and lots of imagination. The exquisitely lurid look of the show, directed by John Crowley and designed by Scott Pask, speaks to fears people mistakenly think they leave behind when they outgrow night lights. And one electric shock of a moment in the first act jolts comfort-food-fed Broadway audiences the way the shower scene in "Psycho" must have slapped moviegoers four decades ago.
Yet for all its darkness of plot and imagery, "The Pillowman" - which won the Olivier Award in London for best new play last year and arrives in New York in a shrewdly recast version - dazzles with a brightness now largely absent from Broadway. Mr. McDonagh's true subject is not gruesome crime and unjust punishment, although that's what a synopsis of the play, set largely in an interrogation room in an unnamed totalitarian state, might lead you to believe.
No, what "The Pillowman" is about, above all, is storytelling and the thrilling narrative potential of theater itself. Let's make one thing clear: Mr. McDonagh is not preaching the power of stories to redeem or cleanse or to find a core of solid truth hidden among life's illusions.
And he is certainly not exalting the teller of stories as a morally superior being. The play's protagonist, Katurian (Mr. Crudup, in a first-class performance), is a touchy, arrogant fellow, whose 400 short pieces of fiction (all but one unpublished) might be read, to borrow from the play, as a how-to guide of "101 ways to skewer a 5-year-old."
The stories' existence are what have landed Katurian and his mentally defective brother Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg) in prison, since the killings described in his simply told fables have been replicated in the town where they live. The team of policemen who interrogate Katurian - the sardonic Tupolski (Mr. Goldblum) and his explosive associate, Ariel (Zeljko Ivanek) - aren't entirely off base in their disdain for what their prisoner has written.
Artistic merit, however, is irrelevant here. So, for that matter, is fiction's significance as social commentary, autobiographical revelation or metaphysical map. As Katurian exclaims in exasperation, "I'm not trying to say anything at all."
For what "The Pillowman" is celebrating is the raw, vital human instinct to invent fantasies, to lie for the sport of it, to bait with red herrings, to play Scheherazade to an audience real or imagined. For Mr. McDonagh, that instinct is as primal and energizing as the appetites for sex and food. Life is short and brutal, but stories are fun. Plus, they have the chance of living forever.
Every character in "The Pillowman" is some kind of storyteller. The narrative styles range from Katurian's gruesome fairy tales (which, in successive coups de théâtre, assume wondrous storybook life before our eyes) to the deceptions practiced by the policemen; from the official, torture-punctuated interrogation that is the play's motor to Ariel's unexpected, maudlin fantasy of what his old age might be like.
These forms of fiction are infused with the same dynamic, wherein information is parceled out in teasing increments and the line between fact and falsehood keeps shifting. The relationship between narrator and listener has its sadomasochistic aspects. And on one level "The Pillowman" recalls what the French director Henri-Georges Clouzot said about his 1955 cinematic chiller, "Diabolique": "I sought only to amuse myself and the little child who sleeps in all our hearts - the child who hides her head under the bedcovers and begs, 'Daddy, Daddy, frighten me.' "
Under the carefully measured direction of Mr. Crowley - with brilliant production work by a team that includes, in addition to Mr. Pask, Brian MacDevitt (lighting), Paul Arditti (sound) and Paddy Cunneen (music) - the cast members act out different degrees of that relationship, as the characters tantalize one another in ways friendly, consoling, manipulative and vicious.
Mr. Goldblum and Mr. Ivanek turn the classic good cop/bad cop formula into a coruscating vaudeville routine. Mr. Goldblum's trademark deadpan wryness has rarely been put to better use, as his Tupolski toys with Katurian like a jaded latter-day version of the police inspector in Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment." Mr. Ivanek, in turn, comes up with delicious variations on the cliché of the combustible, torture-happy cop with a secret past. Their dialogue is appallingly funny, and endlessly quotable, but never out of sync with their characters.
The relationship between Katurian and his brother, the childlike Michal, is mostly rooted in a more amiable storytelling, as befits a fraternal relationship in which one sibling assumes the parental role. (What happened to Katurian's and Michal's Mom and Dad is, well, another story, and it is divulged in several versions.) Mr. Stuhlbarg boldly and expertly captures both the innocence and ugliness of Michal.
Mr. Crudup's finely chiseled features turn out to be ideal for registering the seductiveness, defensiveness and pure vanity of an artist for whom writing means even more than the brother he has protected for many years. Katurian's self-enchanted satisfaction when he tells a story is that of a young magician, pulling off a tricky sleight of hand. And Mr. Crudup makes it clear that the flame of anger burns brightest in Katurian when his stories are criticized or threatened with extinction.
An academic could make endless hay out of this play's narrative complexities and literary evocations (they notably include Kafka as well as Dostoyesvky), just as a sociologist or psychologist could go on about the sources and effects of fiction and its moral responsibility. You could even make a pretty thorough case for "The Pillowman" as an artistic apologia of sorts, directed at those who have dismissed Mr. McDonagh's previous works, set in a mayhem-prone rural Ireland, as pointlessly sensational and whimsical.
But to pursue these lines of thought is to fall into the very traps Mr. McDonagh has set to mock such analysis. Asked by Tupolski to explain symbols and subtext in one of his stories, Katurian answers, "It's a puzzle without a solution." Which is pretty much Mr. McDonagh's credo. But, oh, how he enjoys his puzzles. In this season's most exciting and original new play, he makes sure that we do, too.
The first thought I had after seeing Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman at London's National Theatre last year, once I had dried my eyes and regained my breath, was that the play would never make it to Broadway. Call me a skeptic, but I couldn't fathom how a drama dealing graphically with the torture and murder of children (and adults) might be viewed as manna for matinee crowds.
Luckily, I was wrong. The production of Pillowman (* * * ½ out of four) that opened Sunday at the Booth Theatre won't likely challenge, say, Mamma Mia! at the box office. But those who skip it will miss the best play of the season -a season that has included stellar efforts from the likes of August Wilson, John Patrick Shanley and Michael Frayn.
Pillowman is the most brutal work yet from the celebrated author of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and also his most tender, examining how the redeeming and restorative powers of love and creativity can mitigate or be undone by darker impulses.
Set in a police state, the play opens with a writer, Katurian, being interrogated about crimes mirroring those in his twisted children's stories. The detectives, who also have his brain-damaged brother in custody, are as concerned about the influence of Katurian's writings as his involvement in the copycat acts.
In the USA, where freedom of expression has increasingly been challenged by arbiters of morality and good taste, the questions Pillowman raises about individual rights and responsibilities seem even more resonant. Notably, the playwright introduces us to parents whose negative influence exceeds anything that an impressionable or disturbed mind might glean from a movie or CD.
But McDonagh's argument isn't simple or rhetorical. Presenting Katurian as a psychically ravaged man who values his work more than his life, McDonagh reflects not only on the value of art but also its potential price. Billy Crudup movingly evokes Katurian's anguish, and Michael Stuhlbarg is heartbreaking as the brother. Zeljko Ivanek is sharply affecting as a detective with his own troubled secret.
The only weak link in the cast - and it's a glaring one, unfortunately - is Jeff Goldblum, who plays the lead investigator with an effete wryness more suggestive of a bored ad salesman.
Still, Pillowman's presence on Broadway is reason to cheer, however unsettling its subject matter.