nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 14, 2005
In a season that has been filled with terrific performances, I'm not sure that there has been one so vividly memorable as the one Billy Crudup is giving right now at the Booth Theatre in The Pillowman. There are lots of things to admire about this new play by Martin McDonagh, and just as many to deplore and/or wring your hands about; but Crudup's work here—his most impressive since his excellent turns in Arcadia and Bus Stop—along with that of his estimable co-stars Michael Stuhlbarg and Zeljko Ivanek, makes this must-see theatre for fans of great acting.
Now I need to explain a few things right away. First, you're asking "what about Jeff Goldblum?" Well, Goldblum, the other top-billed star of this show, has been given the least interesting of the four principal roles; he acquits himself well enough, he just never rises to the ineffably moving place that his colleagues do, stuck instead mostly cracking wise in a sitcommy way that draws laughs and is even occasionally a little scary but never seems entirely honest or authentic. (The writing is at least partially responsible.)
Second, you want to know what I mean by saying that there's much to admire yet much to deplore in The Pillowman. Here's where things start to get complicated. The long second scene of the play's first act—it probably lasts about an hour; I didn't clock it—is transcendent and magnificent. In it, a young man named Katurian (Crudup) is thrown into a prison cell occupied by his older brother Michal (Stuhlbarg). Katurian writes short stories—he's got about 400 of them—and although only one has been published so far, he knows they're good and believes that they're the most important part of his life: the most, perhaps only, significant and worthy thing about him. Michal is slow, due to brain damage that happened when he was a child (Katurian explains what happened to him, but I will let that be one of the many jolting revelations for you to discover when you see The Pillowman yourself). Suffice to say that Katurian has cared for Michal since he was 14 years old (their parents having died then); that the two have a deep bond of love that, along with Katurian's stories, is pretty much their only sustenance.
Katurian and Michal don't know why they've been arrested and imprisoned. In the play's first scene, we see Katurian being questioned by two policemen, Detective Tupolski (Goldblum) and Officer Ariel (Ivanek). We're told that they live in a totalitarian state (unnamed); Katurian's initial assumption is that somehow something he wrote is being interpreted as anti-government, which he not only denies but willingly volunteers to correct if only someone will show him what's objectionable. But Katurian, and we in the audience, soon understand that he's not suspected of political crimes at all. Katurian's stories have what Tupolski calls a "theme"—of brutal, surreally imaginative violence against children. And some of the more horrific ones have apparently been acted out in real life.
Much of The Pillowman is given over to Katurian telling his stories. He tells a couple of them directly to us, with actors performing them in dumb-show behind him. During the terrific scene with his brother, he tells a few more, including a brilliantly elusive ghost story about a character called the Pillowman, a 9-foot-high gentle bogeyman made entirely of pillows (his teeth are little pillows, his fingers are pillows, his head is a big round cushion with button eyes) whose job is to go back in time and convince children to kill themselves so that they can avoid the unhappiness and misery that awaits them if they grow up. Another story, as opposite to that as it's possible to be, I suppose, is of the Little Green Pig, a robust and optimistic individualist who likes being a little bit peculiar.
The thing is, McDonagh's writing here is spectacularly good—these stories are veritable masterpieces of the genre in which Katurian works, and Crudup's delivery of them is chillingly, achingly brilliant. The scene between Katurian and his brother is itself another perfect specimen of the very same genre: a grand, affecting ghost story that toys and tantalizes and then moves intractably toward a stunningly terrifying conclusion.
But—and here's where I come to the parts of The Pillowman that keep me from wholeheartedly loving the thing—surrounding this is lots and lots of artifice, and I don't know what it's for. The second act takes place in the interrogation room, with Ariel and then Tupolski spending time questioning Katurian, and threatening to torture and kill him. Ariel seems intent on actually solving the murders at hand, and, as played by Ivanek with a ferocious intensity, becomes a comprehensible adversary for our anti-hero. But Goldblum's Tupolski approaches his duties with a postmodern detachment that seems to come out of nowhere, operating with a gallows humor that feels only gratuitous and mean. McDonagh has proven that he can write better than this: he's being lazy here, or perhaps intentionally sensational—maybe a bit of both.
And here's something else, even more disturbing. Though it's always very clear that no one in The Pillowman advocates murdering children, nevertheless much of the play is occupied with vivid, detailed accounts of just that. At some point, a place of satiation is reached—and then we start to shut down against the horror, desensitized. When does a harmless thrill around a campfire turn into pornography?
So I have reservations; but I nevertheless feel that The Pillowman is unequivocally terrific theatre. It's not for everybody, but it sure is well done. Design elements—sets and costumes by Scott Pask, lighting by Brian MacDevitt, sound by Paul Arditti, and music by Paddy Cunneen—are seamlessly unobtrusive, which is to say they're outstanding in always supporting the production without ever calling attention to themselves. And John Crowley's staging is masterful—he keeps us riveted throughout, even when we suspect (as I did several times, and I'm still not convinced I was wrong) that McDonagh is just jerking our chains.