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The Pillowman: The Joys of Smotherhood

I'll admit it. I spent a few sleepless nights after seeing Martin McDonagh's frequently gruesome but thoroughly engrossing new play The Pillowman, now getting a pretty spectacular production at the Booth. Oh no, it wasn't because of the foreboding depiction of a totalitarian state where an artist can be suspected of criminal activity and be subjected to extreme torture because of his work. I was just restless hoping that Madeleine Martin was having a happy childhood. Martin is the young actress last seen on Broadway playing the title character in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, a spastic, wheelchair-bound tyke who communicated with an assortment of breathy "ahhh"s and sobs. Now, in The Pillowman, she plays a child who, for plot-related reasons I won't reveal, communicates only with high-pitched "eeps". I just hope her Broadway assignments aren't sending this poor girl into early therapy. I do wish to see her playing a happy and healthy child some day.

But on the plus side, this talented little lady is being exposed to some darn fine theatre eight times a week. Yes, I'm sure most Broadway regulars have heard about the frequent walk-outs by people who don't find this comedy/drama of a short story writer who describes in vivid details some rather horrifying and violent acts performed on children to be exactly to their taste. But if you're going to do some challenging theatre, you usually have to offend somebody.

"I may not always be right, but I stand on the right side.", says Zeljko Ivanek as "bad cop" Ariel, defending his brutish and violent tactics in interrogating writer Katurian (Billy Crudup). He and self-professed "good cop" Topulski (Jeff Goldblum), who prefers to disorient the suspect with double-talk and mind games, are trying to get Katurian to confess his involvement with a series of crimes which imitate the horrible deeds from his pen. We're in an unnamed totalitarian nation where the police bear a striking resemblance to the kind of overworked civil servants we see on TV's Law and Order.

The scene is funny. Very funny, in fact, due to the contrast of Zeljko's ferociousness and Goldblum's wry archness. Then we hear cries of pain from the next room and discover that Katurian's mentally challenged brother, Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg in a sympathetically pitiable portrayal), is also being questioned. And after a moment to consider what exactly is happening to him, the play becomes funny again. And yet McDonagh's script, under John Crowley's deft direction, never delves into macabre humor. There's a strict line between what's funny and what's grim and the resulting balancing act keeps the proceedings from toying with bad taste.

Crudup plays the writer as a pleasant, unremarkable fellow. In his story-telling monologues he takes no pleasure in harming his fictional creations, as his tales are acted out on Scott Pask's imposing set of towering walls that hide storybook scenes behind scrims (harshly lit, effectively, by Brian MacDevitt) with a matter-of-fact indifference, far creepier than any active emotion. However sickening a reader may find his tales, they are a part of him he considers more important than his actual being or the life of his brother. Bodily harm means little to him compared with the agonizing possibility that the only copies of his work may be destroyed.

There is much I'm leaving out, as playgoers are better left allowing the author and his talented colleagues to surprise them. Most assuredly there'll be gasps of horror and stunned moments of silence at any given performance, but this is no escapist horror story. The most shocking moments come from the plausibility of it all.

And what of Miss Madeleine Martin? Well, perhaps when this gig is over she can find work with a nice road company of Annie, just for a change of pace.


Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Madeleine Martin
Bottom: Billy Crudup, Zeljko Ivanek and Jeff Goldblum


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From This Author Michael Dale