The George Street Playhouse is presenting a sensational production of Martin McDonagh’s acclaimed London/Broadway play “The Pillowman.” Although the Broadway production that played just last season was fine in many respects, this production, under Will Frears’ intensely focused direction, is perhaps even more effective. The intimacy of the Playhouse has a lot to do with it, but Frears’ staging and the production design brings the action terrifyingly close.
Despite strong reviews the play had a shorter run on Broadway than had been expected. But it is not surprising considering that it falls into a rare genre of dark comedy that takes relish in being excessively macabre. You could say that this is Irish-ized Grand Guignol. Wide appeal is understandably limited and a dramatic experience definitely not meant for the squeamish. But for those whose tastes go for scary fare, it is not to be missed. The cast at George Street is first rate and meticulously in tune with McDonagh’s perversely skewed plot.
McDonagh, the author of the acclaimed award-winning “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and other plays mainly set in his familiar Irish terrain, has a keen and crafty way of spinning unsettling yarns. He has come up with perhaps his most unsettling one yet, and one that is most assuredly for all those who appreciate a good spine-chilling drama. “The Pillowman” is a cunningly devised, if gruesome, slice of dramatic fiction that stands quite apart from McDonagh’s other plays, save for the darkness of its mood and its depiction of horrible parents.
“The Pillowman” is set in a fictional vaguely European totalitarian state that many will find similar to the cold abstracted landscapes that host the plays of Brecht, Kafka, and even Ionescu. In contrast to those more politically-propelled playwrights, McDonagh is content with simply capitalizing on his gift for turning a nightmarish situation into a mystery with enough psychoanalytical twists and turns to give Freud and Jung apoplexy.
The play focuses on Katurian K. Katurian (Scott Ferrara), a prolific writer of gruesome short stories (think Edgar Allan Poe by way of Edward Gorey), who suddenly finds himself as the prime suspect for the murder of a number of local children. The police have noticed that Katurian’s plots appear to mirror in grotesque detail the real life murders occurring in the same city where he lives reclusively with Michal (Michael Mastro), his older mentally challenged brother. Both brothers are brought in for questioning but Katurian, who believes, at first, that he is being targeted by the repressive government for the political subtext in his writing, appears shocked by the accusation. He is even more distressed to hear his brother screaming in pain in an adjoining room.
They are being questioned by a pair of sadistic investigators, the sinisterly droll Tupolski (Lee Sellars) and the compulsively brutal Ariel (Daniel Oreskes), who take delight in trading off on their contrasting styles of interrogation that embraces both psychological and physical torture. The use and questionable usefulness of physical torture in the play certainly has a sobering resonance in light of the current controversy over its continued use by a so-called civilized society. The play processes Katurian’s gift for story-telling, seen in the light of his terrible childhood and his memory of cruel sadistic parents physically abusing his brother.
Even as Katurian’s grotesque stories reveal the origins of his imagination, some of which are grimly, yet also sardonically dramatized, we are also intrigued by the aberrant, almost absurdist, motivations that drive both Tupolski and Ariel. One aspect of the play seems a bit clearer to me than when first seen. It is the thin line that separates the detainees from the psychologically bruised and pathologically motivated interrogators. Ferrara is a bundle of nerves, twitches, and tics and thoroughly mesmerizing as the motor-mouthed writer whose reality may have morphed into his fiction. No less compelling is Mastro, as the pathetically dependant Michal, whose life has been unalterably entwined in his brother’s fiction. To whatever degree humor seeps into the action, it is to Mastro’s credit that his endearingly abnormal behavior is both poignant and funny.
Set designer Sandra Goldmark has cleverly brought the action of Katurian’s blood-curdling stories to the foreground by means of a turntable that encroaches on the creepy and bleak interrogation room and the adjoining cell. The grim stories within feature eerily mechanical performances by Yuval Boim, as Father, Lena Kaminsky, as Mother, Robert Logan Kopp and Loren Matilsky as Boy, and Kayla Nicolle Bolger and Elizabeth Plevy as Girl. They contribute to making this one of the more unusual plays of the New Jersey theater season and certainly one of the more commendably bold choices for George Street. The audience at the opening night performance appeared rapt and rapturous in their approval.
“The Pillowman,” through March 19, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $28 to $58. Visit www.GSPonline.org or call 732-246-7717.