‘Martin McDonagh is a bit of a bad boy,” says actor Michael Mastro who plays the role of the mentally damaged brother in the upcoming George Street production of the Tony-nominated play “The Pillowman.” McDonagh is the author of this play, which has been described by Associated Press writer Michael Kuchwara as “a mesmerizing, nightmarish hallucination that unfolds with a macabre intensity seldom felt in the theater, not to mention the blackest of humor.”
It is this black humor that actor Mastro tells me about in a phone interview while he takes a break during rehearsals. “The author is messing with the audience’s head.” The play can best be described as quite a yarn. In fact, each character in the play is a storyteller. The audience is kept guessing as to what’s really going on and what’s really true. Mastro explains it as “Just because a man walks into a room and says ‘blah, blah, blah,’ we don’t know it is true. We just know that a man walked into a room and said ‘blah, blah, blah.’” He notes that history is written by the victors. “Do we ever really know what happened, for instance in the American Revolution? In this play, someone is always trying to be victorious; each is trying to be in control of the story.”
Writing in the Houston Chronicle recently, Everett Evans says “‘The Pillowman’ is about man’s primal need to tell and hear stories, especially those terrifying tales that explore the darkest corners of human existence.” Mastro reminds me of the early fun children have playing peek-a-boo. “The child is frightened when the face disappears, then delighted when it is back. Children love to be scared.” As do many adults. The twists and turns of “The Pillowman” will not disappoint.
A press statement warns: “This play contains scenes and language that some may find disturbing. Not suitable for children or those who may be easily offended.” Mastro adds: “Part of the experience of this play is the audience trying to figure out the truth. Even at the end, you may still leave the theater wondering. And after three stiff drinks still pondering what happened.”
The story basically is about a fiction writer who lives with and cares for his mentally damaged brother in an unnamed totalitarian state. Two weird cops are interrogating the writer about the gruesome content of his short stories and their similarities to a number of bizarre incidents occurring in this town. We soon learn that they are also holding his brother and threatening to harm him.
Playwright McDonagh is adamant that he is only telling stories, not sending a message. The character who is a writer in the play insists, “there is no meaning” when he is being grilled about his stories. However, the actors of the George Street production, when they were first discussing the script with director Will Frears, could only feel that a layer of meaning has been added by current events, when many are asking, “What is the truth? Whose story is the true story? Does torture force honest answers?” Maybe it is the burden or blessing of good theater that meanings continue to grow from the work whether the author likes it or not.
The George Street press release promises that the play takes on some of modern society’s most intriguing issues — from what defines art, to censorship, to the importance of individual rights. I don’t think McDonagh would be pleased. His stand-in character in the play says, “No ax to grind, no anything to grind. No social anything whatsoever.”
McDonagh is known for his often outlandish or rude behavior, but also for his meteoric rise to prominence, first in the London, then the New York theater scene with his first widely produced play, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” Born in England, he is the son of Irish expatriates, who returned to their homeland while McDonagh and his brother stayed in London, determined to be writers and surviving on the dole and odd jobs while avidly honing their writing skills. His parents’ homeland and the visits he made there served as the setting for the tales he would tell.
Actor Mastro, who plays the misused and damaged brother, says he is not haunted by the play’s events. “But I’m very good at compartmentalizing my life. When I leave the theater, I leave my work at the theater.” The child-like qualities of the character he plays has proved to be very liberating for him. “While the journey of this character is very emotional, the fact that I get to be very expressive about it is emotionally freeing. It all happens in the moment and then it’s over. This is strangely easier than other roles that I have played.”
Mastro has been seen originating roles on Broadway in “Twelve Angry Men,” the 2003 revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “Side Man,” and “Barrymore” (the offstage voice in the one-man play with Christopher Plummer). New Jersey audiences saw him at the Paper Mill Playhouse as Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls,” and in the recent George Street production of “Inspecting Carol.”
Seeing his father perform in a community theater production of “The Music Man” set Mastro on the path to a career in the theater even though he was only a fifth grader at the time. In the ninth grade, he played the role of Finnian in a production of “Finnian’s Rainbow” at Maple Hill High School in Castleton-on-Hudson, New York, where he grew up. When he was 16 and 17, he began to be paid for some acting jobs. He appeared in summer stock in Chatham, New York, and also performed with the Empire State Youth Theater, a professional children’s company in Albany.
He came to New York when he was 18 to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Tisch farms out their acting students to various acting schools in the city. Mastro spent two years at the Strasberg Institute. From there he switched to the Circle in the Square School. He graduated with an arts degree in 1984. He spent a summer studying with David Mamet, then studied with Stella Adler and then Uta Hagen, as well as with the National Theater of Great Britain.
“My dream was to be a Broadway actor. That’s been happening for the past 10 years. I’m very blessed.” As we talk, he admits, “I’m very romantic about the theater. It’s not just my job, it’s my life. It’s become my church.” He is apologetic: “I’m going to confess something. I’m not very good about getting away from my work. I know it’s supposed to be healthy to have hobbies. When I get off the phone, I’ll be trying to figure out how I can grow myself as a person.” He does love to sit around a table with his “equally obsessed” theater friends and eat and talk. “I’m Italian American,” he explains. Then hopefully adds, “Do the things I want to do count?” Then he lists the places he wants to travel to, with Italy at the top of the list. He did live in London for five months with the production of “Side Man.”
“I have a passion for storytelling. That’s just who I am. If that means I’m not well-rounded as a person, so be it. Theater gives me joy.”
In the past, he claims that he has never been very good with personal relationships. However, he has just begun a special relationship. So love and romance may come forward from “the back burner.” And recently he has changed his life by moving to a Mac computer to edit and work with short films that he has made. Both of these milestones seem to mark a turning point from all theater, all the time. He can relax about looking for a hobby.
The Pillowman, through Sunday, March 19, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Opening night, Friday, February 24. Viewer discretion advised. $28 to $56. 732-246-7717.