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A CurtainUp Review
The Pillowman

The Olivier Winning Pillowman Comes to Broadway with an American Cast
by Elyse Sommer

 Billy Crudup(Katurian), Zeljko Ivanek (Ariel), Jeff Goldblum (Tupolski)
Billy Crudup(Katurian), Zeljko Ivanek (Ariel), Jeff Goldblum (Tupolski)
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
George Bernard Shaw divided some of his plays into the pleasant and unpleasant -- the latter definition based on their dealing with subject matters not considered suitable for polite society. Using Shaw's definition, Martin McDonagh needs only one category for his plays to date. Whether set in rural Ireland, like his Leenane series, or in an unnamed totalitarian police state like The Pillowman, his focus is very much on the unpleasant.

Before commenting on the American cast of the Olivier Award winning Pillowman, let me second Lizzie Loveridge's warning to leave the children at home. This pitch-black comedy-- think Kafka but Kafka with as many laugh as chill inducing scenes and crossed with -- is not for the faint-hearted. That leaves enough people to fill the seats at the Booth who are intrigued with a play full of psychological complexity. If you go, you'll try to figure out what you really saw long after the black curtain with its pillow-like edging and central motif descends. Besides pondering the issue of parental abuse as a seedbed for violence and the writers' responsibility for putting out ideas for suggestible readers to act on (like second hand smoke, a form of second hand murder), there's the central puzzle of the main framing device, the Kafkaesque police investigation, is in itself another of Katurian Katurian's stories.

Arresting as The Pillowman is, I find the enthusiasm of the first round of reviews of the American production just a bit over-the-top -- shades of McDonagh's own over-the-top policemen, Tupolski and Ariel. Being first and foremost a chills and thrills examination of the story teller's arts, it doesn't quite capture the political feel of a country where writers are constantly under surveillance and subject to being permanently silenced. That said, McDonagh's move to a different setting is a welcome sign of his growth and development as one of our more interesting young writers. The chills and thrills are certainly there and the stories within the story of Katurian's horrendous interrogation make for a riveting and very original theatrical nightmare. John Crowley has staged the play's real and surreal elements with enormous flair. The scenes in which some of the stories come to life on a second level are stunning and a welcome relief from the grim interrogation room.

While British plays often lose something when recast with American actors, Mr. Crowley has chosen well. Billy Crudup captures the nervous tension of the writer whose conviction that " there are no happy endings in real life" comes all too true. Michael Stuhlbarg is spectacularly touching as the dim-witted brother and the only human being Katurian really cares about. Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek are a perfect match as the handy with the joke good cop Tupolski and the dangerously out of control bad cop, Ariel. Not to be overlooked is Madeleine Martin. The young actress is especially remarkable in the play's story telling highlight scene about a little girl who persists in thinking she's Jesus even as her non-believing adoptive parents act like the Romans who nailed Jesus to the cross.

Judging from the critical and audience response so far, The Pillowman has made a triumphant landing on Broadway. For more details, see the London review that follow the Broadway production notes.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
The Cripple of Inishmaan
The Lieutenant of Inishmore
The Lonesome West
A Skull In Connemara

The Pillowman

Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by John Crowley
Cast: Billy Crudup(Katurian), Jeff Goldblum (Tupolski), Zeljko Ivanek (Ariel), Michael Stuhlbarg(Michal); also Jessie Shane Bronstein (Boy), Ted Koch (Father) Virginia Louise Smith (Mother).
Scenic and costume design: Scott Pask
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Running time: 2 hrs, 40 minutes, with one
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. 212/239-6200.
Monday, Wednesday - Saturday @ 8pm, Tuesday @ 7pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm
From 3/21/05 to 10/01/05; opening 4/10/05. Tickets: $91.25, $71.25;Friday & Saturday evenings, $96.25, $76.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 12, 2005 performance
Last performance 9/18/05 after 23 previews and 208 performances.

--Lizzie Loveridge's review of The Pillowman in London.
It isn't about being or not being dead, it's about what you leave behind.
--- Katurian
The Pillowman
David Tennant as Katurian, Nigel Lindsay as Ariel and Jim Broadbent as Topolski
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Martin McDonagh's plays have been commercially very successful so his latest, The Pillowman is eagerly awaited. If you had asked me at the interval whether I liked this example of post-modern drama, I would have expressed reservations finding the extremes of violence, in this case, of physical child abuse, too disturbing to stomach. At the end of the play my viewpoint was different. It proved to be more interesting and enigmatic that I had at first thought. After 48 hours it still engages my imagination and impresses me with its clever blend of analysis of the creative process for writers and childhood experience using the medium of dark tales for children as a psychological starting point.

The play opens with a policeman Tupolski (Jim Broadbent) interrogating a writer of bizarre stories for children, Katurian (David Tennant) about the deaths and disappearance of three children. These mysteries bear a distinct resemblance to Katurian's stories. Katurian has been brought up with an elder brother by parents who, in an obscene experiment spoilt him, promoted and fostered his writing talent. While the attentive and doting parents encouraged his writing, he heard the screams from the next door bedroom of a boy, his brother Michal (Adam Godley), being systematically tortured. He finds his neglected brother, now brain damaged from years of torture, and murders his parents by suffocating them with a pillow. As the policemen pursue the child killers, Katurian tries to find out if his brother is involved but is most concerned with making sure that his stories survive to be read by others.

Taking an extreme case, McDonagh looks at issues of how parents prefer one sibling over another and sometimes abuse their children. There is a particularly chilling story of a little girl who wants to be like Jesus who is tortured, crucified and buried alive by very cruel foster parents.

The playwright links all early experiences to the creative process of producing fiction. Does every writer have a social responsibility for placing ideas in the heads of his readers? Many of these stories are played out above the stage in rooms on a higher level as they are narrated by Katurian below.

McDonagh also looks at the part played in imagination of the brutal elements in stories for children, like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, or those from Shockheaded Peter, and even Bible stories. The second act ties all these threads together in a very powerful and involving conclusion.

True to McDonagh's usual style there is much black and wry comedy. Jim Broadbent's avuncular policeman is full of menace and threats, yet he produces an ironic commentary of his own behaviour with the prisoner, "I'm a high ranking police officer in a totalitarian police state. What are you doing taking my word about anything?" His colleague Ariel (Nigel Lindsay) beats up Katurian first and asks questions later. Despite the horror, there is much that we have to laugh at, although at times, the sicker aspects seems to permeate much of the comedy.

David Tennant is superb as the creative genius, the writer who cares for his brain damaged brother and who narrates onstage five of his own stories with such sincere, wide eyed storytelling skill. Jim Broadbent has an ease of acting style and he turns many moments into a comedy which isn't in the script by a shrug here, a perfectly timed aside there. Adam Godley plays the childlike, brain damaged brother very convincingly, and at times seems to make much more sense than those with all their faculties.

The story of the little girl who wanted to be Jesus is played out to a backdrop of brightly coloured stained glass type windows like the illustrations in a children's story book. Most of the set is a dark police cell, grills on the high skylights and door panel, with a scruffy table and chairs, dominated by a large pendant light. John Crowley has directed for authenticity with tantalising, escapist changes of mood as stories are told.

The Pillowman is a disturbing, but deserving, stimulating and original work. It is s not, however, suitable for children.

Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by John Crowley

Starring: David Tennant, Jim Broadbent
With: Nigel Lindsay, Adam Godley, Victoria Pembroke, Mike Sherman, James Daley, Jennifer Higham
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Designer: Scott Pask
Lighting Designer: High Vanstone
Sound: Paul Arditti
Running time: Two hours forty minutes with one interval.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 3rd January 2004
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 13th November 2003 Performance at the Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Tube/Rail: Waterloo)

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