"Of course you read the script before seeing the play," an indignant director once scolded me over a beer. "That's what real critics do." I mumbled evasively, but I wanted to say this: Sometimes pre-reading helps one understand a play better, but sometimes it ruins the fun. When it comes to Martin McDonagh, I prefer post-reading. His bloody Irish plays—with their grotesque surprises and fatalistic humor—are best left unexpected. His lyrical dialogue, self-destructive characters, and unflinching stare into the tar pits of the soul are best savored afterward.

And they're worth savoring. McDonagh writes chilling lines, like this one from The Pillowman: "We like executing writers... it sends a message, y'know? (Pause.) I don't know what signal it sends, that's not really my area, but it sends out a signal." And hilarious scenes, like this one from A Skull in Connemara: Mick (a wry old boozer) and Mairtin (a skinny, dim kid) are digging up bones from the churchyard to make room for more bodies. Mairtin asks why he hasn't seen any penises on the skeletons.

Mick: Isn't it illegal in the Catholic faith to bury a body with the willie still attached? Isn't it a sin in the eyes of the Lord?

Mairtin: (incredulous) No...

Mick: Don't they snip them off in the coffin and sell them to tinkers as dog food?

Mairtin: (horrified) They do not!

Mick: And during the famine, didn't the tinkers stop feeding them to their dogs at all and start sampling the merchandise themselves?

Mairtin: They did not, now, Mick...

Mick: You would see them riding along with them, munching ahead... That's the trouble with young people today, is they don't know the first thing about Irish history.

Like McDonagh's other plays, The Pillowman—about a writer, violent cops, and a string of child murders—is not for the faint of heart. So what's it doing at ACT, best known these days for shaky finances and theatrical muzak like Menopause the Musical™?

To recapitulate: ACT—the four-theater complex in the ornate old Eagles Building—nearly died in 2003 and pleaded for donations. Several voices, including The Stranger's, wondered aloud if the investment was worth it: Should we really pitch millions of dollars at another troubled, tepid theater? But people pitched anyway, giving ACT just enough strength to crawl off its deathbed and limp into the daylight. Now it's charging into the 2006 season with The Pillowman followed by the boldly named Mitzi's Abortion by local playwright Elizabeth Heffron and a co-production of Waiting for Godot with Dublin's Gate Theatre.

Artistic director Kurt Beattie agrees that the season reflects a new sense of financial confidence. "There's a sense that ACT is in a position to be riskier," he said. "There's a shift in momentum, we're not back on our heels. We're ready, I think, to be more demanding and our audiences have demonstrated that they have an appetite and interest in us going further this way."

And what about Menopause the Musical™ and Defending the Caveman, the focus-grouped plays that get derisive clucks and tuts from the artsier-than-thou crowd? Beattie says they aren't subsidizing ACT, just "taking some of the ancillary pain away." But they look more than ancillary, bringing in $45 per ticket and luring repeat customers from the 'burbs. "They don't have any artistic relationship to our season," Beattie said. "But I have no apologies for doing them—they're exciting to their audiences. And they do have audiences. There's room in the world for high culture and entertainment." And if the Menopause of the Caveman helps pay for The Pillowman, who's complaining? There's no shame in having a day job to pay the rent. And the rent at ACT, with its restored old downtown building, is probably steep.

"I've always had this idea of ACT as this kind of funhouse," Beattie said. "When I was a kid we went to the Steeplechase on Coney Island, which had a lot of different rooms where odd things happened. The girls got air blown up their skirts and the floor suddenly became a rolling thing and there were monsters that popped out of the walls. And ACT, because it's a multi-venue facility, is ideally situated to express that."

For now, I'm just looking forward to seeing The Pillowman. I started to read the script but put it down after the first scene, which ends with the line: "I'd best go get the electrodes." I like surprises.