Help me out here. Somebody please explain to me what I was supposed to take away from "The Pillowman." A few weeks back I went to the opening of the New Rep's version of the much-honored play by Martin McDonagh. It was a terrifically staged, excellently acted production. We left after two hours anyway, feeling as if we'd been beaten up by the playwright for no reason at all.
Since we skipped out, I wasn't going to write about it. But I couldn't get it out of my head. I got the play from the library so I could read the third act, which we'd missed - perhaps there was some redemptive kernel that would justify the brutality of the experience. I've Googled the New York Times review that made me want to see the show in the first place. But despite the fine New Rep performances (Jon Kuntz, Steven Barkheimer, Phillip Patrone, Bradley Thoennes) and the compellingly lurid staging (director Rick Lombardo, design John Malinowski) and the undeniable playwriting craft...
...I just don't get it.
This is three hours of emotional and physical sadism, its back-and-forth dialogue tinged with the blackest of black humor. Hey, I'm a lifetime newspaperman. I used to keep a bulletin board full of headlines like "Man Drowns in Baptism," so I get that the worst things that happen can also be hilarious. I have no problem with gory entertainment - I love George Romero movies. But ultimately I found this play repellent.
A synopsis: In an unnamed police state, a writer named Katurian (Kuntz) has been taken into custody by a Mutt-and-Jeff team of cops because his sheaf of 400 unpublished fables about horrific child murders resembles a recent set of real-life crimes. The cops are also holding Katurian's childlike, mentally disabled brother. Somebody's got to confess, or they're going to bring out the electrodes. But the brothers' backstory is more horrible than anything the cops could concoct. Can one brother protect the other? How far will the cops go? Who's gonna end up dead? What horrible crimes will we see reenacted?
I'm not Bill Bennett or Rush Limbaugh. I don't expect to be uplifted. I don't think art has to be pro-social to have value. But I do expect a grueling three-hour stage drama supposedly filled with big ideas to give me some kind of explanation for its existence. The ghastly child torture, electroshock, fratricide, matricide, patricide, infanticide and references to sexual abuse and other awful subjects that fill the pages of "The Pillowman" don't add up to anything except a grimly depressing evening with an occasional frisson of fear and disgust.
All four main characters are twisted beyond redemption, and despite oceans of allegedly profound dialogue, their actions seem predetermined and meaningless. I don't think McDonagh said anything here about freedom and responsibility, or the Kafkaesque realm of the interrogation room. He brings up the subject of how a brutal childhood can twist an adult life but doesn't go anywhere with it, except down a hall of mirrors of superficially clever twists and turns. He's endlessly inventive, but his violent creation is as dead-end as porn.
Granted McDonagh and the New Rep folks did a magnificent job of sticking these characters and scenes in my head - but as trauma, like that glimpse of a car crash victim you just can't forget. Even this would almost be acceptable if the play had something to say about the meaningless, random brutality of our modern existence. But not so much, no.
"No, what 'The Pillowman' is about, above all, is storytelling and the thrilling narrative potential of theater itself," wrote the Times reviewer. For this we need to see a young boy tortured with an electric drill and hear his screams? The reviewer also wrote, "Artistic merit, however, is irrelevant here. So, for that matter, is fiction's significance as social commentary, autobiographical revelation or metaphysical map. As Katurian exclaims in exasperation, 'I'm not trying to say anything at all.' "
So the whole point of the exhausting exercise was the playwright's power to make us want to know what happens next? Well, we left at halftime. I think all the critics have failed to recognize that this play's bloody rags are merely a new version of the emperor's new clothes.