Uh-Oh, Here It Comes …McDonagh’s Masterly Nightmare

The four most promising words in any language are “Once upon a time …. ” Unless, that is, we use just two, “One day …. ” And this much I know. One day, Martin McDonagh sat down someplace and wrote a fantastic play that’s all about telling stories, and I’ve never quite experienced anything like it.

Call The Pillowman the big bad ghoulish brother to my other favorite horror story in town, the Heinrich Hoffmann–inspired Shockheaded Peter. Mr. McDonagh’s danse macabre is a staggering experience, a tall story in itself, a Gothic yarn, a modern Grimms’ Fairy Tale, a fine, playful achievement in every way. This exceptional, slyly witty piece is scary and weird, and it’s something extremely rare on Broadway-an uncompromised, unapologetic, original idea!

Outwardly, The Pillowman is about something “-esque.” Now what could that possibly be? “Kafka-esque,” perhaps? It has always been one of Mr. McDonagh’s teasing specialties to send up the very thing he’s writing about. In this case, it’s the “-esque” tale of a passionate, threatened writer in a totalitarian state. Katurian K. Katurian, played by Billy Crudup, who’s simply excellent, is a writer who’s penned 400 gruesome short stories, only one of which has actually been published.

And only Mr. McDonagh would choose as his hero a dedicated writer who isn’t any good. Or so it might seem. Actually, Katurian’s stories get better and better as the evening goes on. But let’s not go into the child’s severed toes and the little mute girl who’s buried alive quite so soon.

We don’t wish to deter the squeamish.

A number of child murders have been committed in Katurian’s town that resemble his stories. The literally tortured artist is therefore arrested and sure to be executed. “We like executing writers,” announces his prosecutor, Tupolski. “Dimwits we can execute any day. And we do. But, you execute a writer, it sends a signal, y’know?”

In an inspired casting choice, Tupolski is played by Jeff Goldblum. Anyone-or any thing-played by Mr. Goldblum is just swell with me. His droll presence alone conveys the fun of performing (and all actors are storytellers in disguise). His Tupolski is the good cop who’s also a cool sadist and amateur short-story writer. Very amateur. The bad cop is a murderous psychopath, Ariel, an avenging angel played by the genuinely alarming Željko Ivanek. The two interrogators in the dark cell seem to be making up the rules as they go along, like writers improvising spooky stories.

The question is, Who done it? Were the child murders committed by the author, Katurian? Or by his retarded brother, Michal, played by the fourth first-rate actor of the ensemble, Michael Stuhlbarg, whose touching performance unnerves us most on its dangerous edge? Were the murders even committed?

When the jailed Katurian realizes that in this twilight zone the murders might not have happened, it inspires the funniest line in the play: “I wish I had a pen!”

I love that line. It means that Katurian-and almost certainly Martin McDonagh-cannot help themselves. Whatever the dire, darkly comic circumstances-facing execution, or the last seconds of life itself-there’s always the irresistible urge to tell a story, reinvent reality, play havoc with fact and fiction, twist truth into good lies.

“I wish I had a pen now,” the suddenly inspired Katurian says to his brother. “I could do a decent story out of this. If they weren’t going to execute us in an hour …. “

The brilliant production, directed by John Crowley, comes to us via the Royal National Theatre, but before we all swoon in a traditional bout of doting Anglophilia, remember Democracy. Michael Frayn’s play via the National was a snooze, but even its ardent admirers found the American version badly miscast. Pillowman’s U.S. actors couldn’t be better, as I say. Mr. McDonagh, the Anglo-Irish playwright, stands alone in his gleeful ability to string us along on a stunning ride. But it wasn’t always so, at least for me.

The Irishman in him has always ignited a certain gallows humor. (So did the Irish in Beckett.) But I offered a strongly dissenting view of his acclaimed The Beauty Queen of Leenane. It was said that it contained the sorrowful, savage humor of J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. But I know a low-budget horror movie when I see one. The predictable, murderous goings-on in the self-assured Mr. McDonagh’s ungodly hellhole of Connemara were creaky tales of long, stormy nights locked in turn-of-the-century backwater blarney.

The Leenane trilogy of the New Wave playwright reinforced the myth of a yokel Ireland, superstitious, squalid and quaint. Be it upon my own soul as well as the blessed soul of my sufferin’ mutter, oi must say dere is notern da criteeks loiks marr dan Oirish tales of da ghoulies and da Guinness wit a bloody bladdy axe ta split open some poor fekker’s grievin’ head.

Be that as it may, The Pillowman isn’t one of Mr. McDonagh’s Irish plays and it’s of a different order. The bizarre stories within stories remind us of a queasy version of Arabian Nights-the fable of the little girl who thought she was Jesus, the boy who’s killed by razors buried in apples, the adorable child who’s painted green. They’re troubling, sick stories, well told. There’s a thrilling coup de theatre in the first act that I best not reveal in detail. The set and costume designer, Scott Pask, has brought a storybook to hyper-real life.

The tale of the eponymous Pillowman himself is haunting (though it runs out of steam toward its breathless close). “Uh-oh, here it comes … ” Katurian’s brother says with a child’s nervous excitement at the known and the unspeakable. The Pillowman helps unhappy children.

” … And the Pillowman’s job was very, very sad,” Katurian tells us at an even, child-like pace, “because the Pillowman’s job was to get that child to kill themselves, and so avoid the years of pain that would just end up in the same place for them anyway: facing an oven, facing a shotgun, facing a lake. ‘But I’ve never heard of a small child killing themselves,’ you might say. Well, the Pillowman would always suggest they do it in a way that would just look like a tragic accident …. “

Sweet, isn’t it? But nobody said this is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The Pillowman kills to save-a spooky mission-and the Grand Guignol play has its serious side. Some see social significance in it. (Totalitarian state versus freedom of expression, rights of the nonconformist, responsibility of the writer, etc., etc.) But I am with those who see only the glory in spinning a good yarn.

Katurian tells us the key to Pillowman at the outset. “A great man once said, ‘The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story,'” he explains to his persecutors, “and I believe that wholeheartedly: ‘The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.’ Or was it ‘The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.’ Yeh, it might have been ‘The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.’ I can’t remember, but anyway, that’s what I do, I tell stories. No axe to grind, no anything to grind. No social anything whatsoever …. “

Still, Katurian’s desperate plea for his stories to live on after him rings true. Mr. McDonagh is saying, in effect, that all writers count for something and must not be silenced. And which lunatic would disagree? The story is all, particularly in theater, and The Pillowman has a surprising happy end in a world where happy ends no longer exist.