Review Number One: For Those Who Haven’t Seen the Play

Call it a case of irrational exuberance.After weeks of pumping The Pillowman in conversation and print, I left ACT feeling a little deflated, in part because of the production, in part because of the play. Not that Martin McDonagh hasn’t written another fantastic, harrowing, and queasily hilarious story—he has. But this one, for all its severed toes, sadistic cops, even more sadistic parents, and top-shelf gallows humor, is more cerebral (but not necessarily smarter) than his others. It’s tough to talk about The Pillowman without spoiling its delicious twists and I don’t want to do that. I want you to go see it. The dialogue is great, if a little flattened in this production—each character finds his note early on and rarely strays from it, smothering some of McDonagh’s musical dynamism. But still, this is a play you will want to have seen and it provokes unexpected debate among friends: Some hate the first scene and love the third. Some vice versa. Some like the actors who play the cops. Some can’t stand them. Some think the scenes with the pantomiming kids are hilarious. Some think they’re offensive.

Two bits of advice. One: Don’t walk out during intermission. The second act is better. Two: Don’t read the warning signs (about strobes and gunfire) on the way into the theater. They give away a crucial piece of information that may spoil the conclusion.

Review Number Two: For Those Who Have Seen the Play

Thought it was going to be better? Yeah, me too. But I’m glad I saw it—only two of the dozen-ish people I know who saw it walked out during intermission and the rest of us were like: “Dude, you missed out. Act Two was way better.” Still, I expected more. Like I say in the other review, each character finds his note early on and rarely strays from it: Katurian is shrill, Michal is dopey, Ariel is angry, Tupolski (the most nuanced of the four) is alternately grumbly and flip. There were missed opportunities for the characters to ride the peaks and valleys that create dramatic tension, but the actors seemed unwilling, or unable, to take the ride. Except the kids—their facial expressions (especially the girl’s as she mimes “I fucking am Jesus”) were harrowing and funny. Which is just what The Pillowman should be throughout.

As for the script: Katurian, the cops, Michal—they were more symbols than characters, which is surprising for McDonagh, who specializes in complicated human stories. But as long as McDonagh wants to write in symbols, we might as well take them seriously. I like his implied moral argument that art does lead to violence (especially coming from a violent playwright like himself), turning the usual claim to artistic immunity (“movies don’t kill people, people kill people”) on its head.

His argument, as I read it, goes like this: The archetypal pampered artist (AKA Katurian) thinks the Tipper Gore argument that violent music, movies, video games—violent arts—promote violent behavior is nonsense. He counters with defensive volleys, from Chuck D’s politics of verisimilitude (we only reflect the violence of our unjust world) to Georges Bataille’s essentialist erotics (man is a passionate animal and any art worth the name is about the “little death” and the “big death”) to old-fashioned amoral aesthetics (“the only duty of a storyteller is to tell a good story”). “Tipper Gore has contempt for the people,” the artist says. “She thinks they can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy! Of course they can! We can, can’t we?”

Our man Katurian Katurian Katurian (yes) of the child-killing stories flirts with all three arguments through the course of the play but never settles on one. To recapitulate: KKK’s parents were cruel scientists, pampering Katurian and secretly torturing Michal, though allowing Katurian to hear Michal’s tortured screams without knowing what they were. Under their sonic influence, the budding writer’s stories became darker and nastier (and better). One day, Katurian discovered the mangled Michal and a story he had written. It was “the sweetest, gentlest thing he had ever come across but, what was worse, it was better than anything he himself had ever written. Or ever would.”

Which brings us to the heart of the play. Katurian has written his awful stories and some kids have been mutilated and killed. As Agent Tupolski says:

Well, here’s where we stand as of 5:15 p.m., Monday the fourth. Along with the evidence found in your house, your brother, spastic or not, has, under duress or not, admitted enough about the killings for us to execute him before the evening’s out, but, as Ariel said, he’s hardly the brains behind the operation. So we want you to confess too. We like executing writers. Dimwits we can execute any day. And we do. But, you execute a writer, it sends a signal, y’know? (Pause.) I don’t know what signal it sends out, that’s not really my area, but it sends out a signal. (Pause.) No, I’ve got it. It know what signal it sends out. It sends out the signal “DON’T… GO… AROUND… KILLING… LITTLE… FUCKING… KIDS!” (Pause.) Where’s the mute girl? Your brother didn’t seem to want to spill the beans.

Katurian says he doesn’t know a thing about the murders and we (especially us Chuck D fans) believe him: “Are you saying I shouldn’t write stories with child killings because in the real world there are child killings?”

But his claim to artistic immunity is totally blown when Katurian, reunited with Michal, learns that his sweet, victimized brother did chop off a boy’s toes and made a girl swallow razor blades.

“What’d you do it for?” Katurian asks.

“Because you told me to,” Michal answers. “Every story you tell me, something horrible happens to somebody… And I didn’t set out to kill those kids. I just set out to chop the toes off one of them and to put razors down the throat of one of them.”

“Are you telling me you don’t know that if you chop the toes off a little boy and put razors down the throat of a little girl, you don’t know that they’re gonna die?”

“Well, I know now.”

Lots of other things happen (the car battery torture, the suffocations, the Little Green Girl), but that concern is the center of the play: Artists are caught in a moral contradiction, refusing to acknowledge the violence they inspire, and that we, in the audience, might be retards. But we’re brothers, we’re tied—Katurian, as the artist, wants to see himself as separate from the monstrous Michal. But Katurian’s stories—his art—came from violence and end in violence. There is no separation between artist and audience, there is no artistic immunity.

This is all very interesting, of course, but in the effort to make a point, McDonagh has lost his storyteller’s edge. Unlike Katurian, he’s too preoccupied with the effect of his tales to do them justice.