“The Pillowman” a long, dark tale
While that length often hobbles the play, its darkness is at the heart of the World's Stage production's best moments.
Walking into The Pillowman, the second show in The World’s Stage Theatre Company’s Martin McDonagh cycle, is an experience in itself. Scenic designer Angela Zylla has shrouded the Underground Collaborative’s Arcade Theater in darkness with quasi-moonlight on stage, so patrons enter, avoiding the two large shelves stacked with banker’s boxes, to sit in seats on risers between stacks of files and a man – blindfolded and silent – at a simple table.
The experience itself that follows is not always as great. The Pillowman, directed by Paul Matthew Madden, has a great premise – Katurian (David Bohn), the blindfolded short story writer, is being interrogated by a pair of detectives (David Franz and Audwin Short) for the stories he has written, as this is a totalitarian state where speaking your mind is not permitted.
The problem isn’t the premise, though – it’s the near-three hour length. A long play isn’t always bad, and the two intermissions (and the complementary wine and beer available at both) go a great way to solving the problem. But the play can feel long, and that’s almost worse.
The opening scene is one of the few exceptions. Franz and Short give Bohn the usual good cop/bad cop routine at a riveting, rapid-fire pace, the interrogated man giving nothing up. Franz especially excels in the moment, a clear student of the mannerisms of TV and film’s greatest detectives. As Tupolski, he’s a cocky jerk throughout, exactly what you want from a totalitarian interrogator.
That pace isn’t preserved throughout, and the results can be quite tedious. Katurian’s short tales, told throughout the production, are the primary offender. It makes sense that a short story writer might tell a yarn or two in the course of the play, but these embedded stories drag on too long. Bohn’s delivery is as much at fault as McDonagh here; at times, he seems as exhausted by the stories as we are. While he told the macabre story of the Pillowman (a metaphor for suicide) to his imprisoned brother Michal (Joe Foti IV) – in jail for murdering several young children in manners that resemble killings from Katurian’s stories – it took a lot to keep from coming down and joining Foti on his comfy prison mattress.
There is a reward, however, for sticking with The Pillowman until the end. The gripping final scene is a satisfying denouement that wraps up the intertwining murders and the brothers’ haunting backstories with a grim yet relatable takeaway: often, great stories are born from great pain. So too is The Pillowman – if you’re willing to get through the long middle, there’s much greatness in the play’s beginning and ending to savor.