Usually Gothamist goes to teeny-tiny shows in teeny-tiny theaters because of their teeny-tiny ticket prices. However, this past weekend a visiting friend made the bright lights of Broadway a little more accessible, so it seemed like a good chance to see what the fuss about recent big budget shows is about. On Saturday, then, The Pillowman cameth. Or rather, Gothamist wenteth, and found that the hype has pretty much been worth it. It’s up for 6 Tony awards, including Best Play, and with the star power of Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum, there was a lot of expectation and attention leading up to its opening last month.
It’s hardly suited for popular tastes aside from that celebrity presence, at least as far as subject matter goes, but the strength of the production otherwise largely makes up for that.
Briefly, that subject matter has to do with Katurian Katurian (Crudup), a writer who’s been arrested because some recent gruesome murders copied descriptions of killings in his stories. Katurian is interrogated by two cops (one played by Goldblum), as is his disturbed younger brother. As the characters repeat several times, they’re living in a totalitarian state, and the interrogation methods are hardly gentle. Though Katurian starts out thinking he has nothing to worry about, very quickly it becomes clear that painful histories are driving each character to some pretty, um, twisted things. It’s a long play, so tons more is involved, so to avoid being tedious or giving away too much we’ll just leave it at that, and say that Martin McDonagh, the playwright, nicely threads the play’s central theme of storytelling through all the characters, in their stories and confessions and secrets and lies.
The four main actors are all brilliant; each really inhabits his character and makes him vividly present for the audience. Billy Crudup is nominated for Best Leading Actor in the Tonys, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays his brother Michal, is up for Best Featured Actor; the consensus in conversations Gothamist overheard among other audience members seemed to be that Stuhlbarg almost steals the show. He’s great, at any rate, making Michal totally real – a man-child who’s both creepy and gentle, funny and heartbreaking. The sequences when Katurian tells his brother stories are among the most moving in the play. Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek play good cop/bad cop, or maybe in this case bad cop/worse cop: Goldblum seems nicer at first because he’s less crazy, but his cop’s hard-nosed rationality, which he shows with his not-quite-comic deadpan delivery, make him scarier in the end.
The other consensus in overheard audience conversations was that the play is really “dark and disturbing.” That it is, no question, which is why it’s a bit strange to hear so much laughter during many scenes. Some parts are actually funny, especially those with Stuhlbarg, but a lot of the laughing, Gothamist suspects, was a nervous reaction to the sheer horror of certain moments. McDonagh is known for his plays’ black humor, which is all well and good, no one wants a total downer of a show, but it’s still a tad unsettling to hear people laugh when, for instance, a police inspector exits the room announcing he’s going to torture someone. Of course, all the laughter in the world wouldn’t suffice to make The Pillowman lighthearted, and that’s a good thing – with all the unnatural cheer of myriad Mamma Mia and Good Vibrations-type shows on Broadway, anything that smacks of the macabre is more than welcome.
Details: The Pillowman is at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Shows are Mon. & Wed.-Sat. at 8pm, Tues. at 7pm, and Wed. & Sat. at 2pm.