The Pillowman at New Rep; 1776 at Lyric Stage
Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, which is getting its area premiere at New Repertory Theatre (at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through October 1), is a superficially clever play. In a totalitarian state, a writer of ghoulish fables — violent, Grimm-style stories about abused children, with the details updated to take in the most disturbing realities of contemporary life — is arrested, along with his mentally handicapped brother, when real children are murdered in imitation of his plots. In the long (100-minute) first act, we learn first that one of Katurian’s tales, about parents whose insane experiment to turn their son into a gifted writer demands the clandestine torture of his brother, is autobiographical — and then that the child killer is that damaged brother, Michal, who read Katurian’s stories as instructions. (Act two brings further twists.)
The play, which won a 2004 Olivier Award and was enthusiastically received in New York last season, combines a hot-button topic (the mistreatment of children) with a Pirandellian theme (the blurred line between fiction and reality) and a Beckettian scenario (two hapless brothers playing out their endgame in an isolated cell). It’s an ironic black comedy — the specialty of McDonagh, who also wrote The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. But its effectiveness depends on how seriously you take the debate about whether an artist is responsible for acts committed in his name by crazy people, and I would say that debate is bogus. (Would anyone write a play in which Martin Scorsese is thrown in jail after John Hinckley cites Taxi Driver as his impetus for shooting at Reagan?) And McDonagh’s setting doesn’t spin out of the play’s inner logic. Nothing about the narrative reflects on the totalitarian nature of the unnamed country in which it takes place; the play is ultimately unconcerned with politics. Yet without the totalitarian framework, McDonagh wouldn’t be able to threaten an execution for the two brothers without the dramatic inconvenience of a trial by jury, and neither could he raise the issue of whether the cops should burn Katurian’s stories. Mostly the setting gives The Pillowman the cachet of modern European political theater without its substance.
I didn’t see the Broadway production, so it’s hard to know how much the repetitive, unimaginative acting at the New Rep can be blamed on the writing and how much on the director, Rick Lombardo. Of the four principal actors — John Kuntz as Katurian, Bradley Thoennes as Michal, and Steven Barkhimer and Phillip Patrone as the two hard-boiled cops who interrogate (and sometimes torture) Katurian — only Kuntz demonstrates any range, and only in the opening scenes, where his character is seen both as a terrified citizen under suspicion in a fascist regime and as an artist jealously guarding his right to a free imagination. Patrone yells, and Barkhimer reads all his lines sarcastically — the two least interesting choices an actor can make. Thoennes’s impersonation of a retarded man is merely the kind of theatrical stunt that a role like this one usually inspires. The actors go on doing the same things over and over for the duration of the play, which at three hours feels punishingly long. McDonagh appears to have convinced himself that he’s written such an important work that the ideas in it are worth stating over and over again. Lombardo and the set designer, John Howell Hood, have added one: a full-length, slightly distorted mirror reflects the audience back to itself. This scenic curlicue, borrowed from Cabaret, implies that we’re implicated in the events of the play, but I’m damned if I can see how.
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