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Wednesday, May 25, 2005


The Pillowman
by Martin McDonagh
Starring Billy Crudup, Jeff Goldblum, Zeljko Ivanek, and Michael Stuhlbarg
On Broadway at the Booth Theatre

Give me a good interrogation drama any day. But despite the classic set pieces of a windowless room with a bright hanging bulb and rickety old chairs, Martin McDonagh has decidedly not written one. His The Pillowman is instead a somewhat awkward allegory of the beauties and perils of storytelling, the necessary suffering of the artist, and other seemingly self-serving concerns for a playwright. That the play is such a hit is a testament to the rarity of originality of any kind on Broadway. Audiences are also, understandably, responding to McDonagh's sharp dialogue and his constant rigging of scenes to maximize intense face-offs between the characters. He is served by an estimable cast who ride his rollercoaster with ease (a little too much ease, I felt, at a recent Tuesday night performance), and the standing ovation they get feels for once genuine. Good actors on stage confronting each other in clear life-or-death situations is something people will always come back to the theatre to see.

Because McDonagh has cleverness in spades, what he really needs are actors with soul, however, to make his play anything more than a good class exercise. Thinking-woman's-heartthrob Billy Crudup is definitely a serious actor, and skilled enough to brush off McDonagh's incessant 4 -page monologues with total fluency. But there's also an arrogance and smugness that--while it's presumably a trait of the character, Katurian, a twisted children's story writer--doesn't make me want to listen to him for over two and half hours. I say listen because Katurian talks an awful lot, and his telling of his own stories--which seem like something by Roald Dahl on a killing rampage--must constitute about half the play's wordcount. In the mouth of a more poetic sensibility these would be far more compelling. But Crudup's smug contemporary everydude gives me little to care about.

As a play, what are we to make about a story that yanks our chain all evening about whether certain children were murdered or not just to take us to an ending we pretty much expect and which offers us not much more than "an artist's work lives on". (Some sense in the message a more naked defense of McDonagh's against those who accuse him of empty theatrics. A kind of apologia for the Good Yarn over all else.) Katurian's persecutors are hapless oafs, really. Interrogators without a state, they represent god knows what to McDonagh. He throws around the word "totalitarian" but to what end? No politics are ever broached. I suppose censorship is a topic hanging over the proceedings, but never comes into play. (And how does Katurian even get his ugly little stories published in such a supposedly repressive state anyway?)

Jeff Goldblum is very funny and charming as the self-acknowledged "good cop" of the pair of heavies. But he's all surface. You realize watching him what a talented light comedian Goldblum can be--while you also yearn to know what darker, more human notes Jim Broadbent must have brought to the role in London. His partner the "bad" Zeljko Ivanek--a little guy who takes out his own childhood demons in punishing others--ends up winning much more sympathy, oddly, just because Ivanek is that deep an actor. But it's the lyrical Michael Stuhlbarg who tugs at the heartstrings the most as Katurian's manchild brother, even though he may just be the greatest evildoer of the whole quartet!

The director John Crowley and his entire production team--all imported from the Royal National Theatre original--succeed in haunting us throughout. The eye-popping visuals for Katurian's stories--enacted by a silent cast of extras who appear out of nowhere, as if projected onto the upstage wall--elicit the most effective audience gasps, and hint at the potential power of McDonagh's idiosyncratic violent imagination, which seems stifled here in both the progress of the play and the timidity of some of the acting.

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