The Pillowman | Steppenwolf Theatre Company

WHEN Through 11/12, Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM

WHERE Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted

PRICE $20-$60

INFO 312-335-1650

You can count on Martin McDonagh’s brooding works to crawl under your skin. A decade ago a quartet of plays skillfully blending dark humor and toxic violence secured his fame: The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West, all set in unforgivingly bleak contemporary west Ireland. These works, with their occasional grotesque distortions of reality, had the unsparing logic of myth. Yet there was a barrage of silly criticisms about their lack of Irish authenticity.

After several years’ hiatus McDonagh reemerged in 2003, at England’s National Theatre, with The Pillowman, set in an unnamed totalitarian state. The play got raves when it arrived on Broadway last year, and like his earlier works, this one–now being performed by Steppenwolf–provides some uniquely discomfiting thrills. But in stepping outside his literary home turf, McDonagh seems to be straining for the stylistic coherence that once flowed effortlessly; for one thing, the “totalitarian state” here is pretty sketchy. And ultimately he indulges the story’s perversity to a point verging on prurience.

The Pillowman is thick with images of abused and murdered children. The play opens in a police interrogation room, where good cop Tupolski and bad cop Ariel are taunting, wheedling, and abusing a man they view with obvious disgust: struggling writer Katurian Katurian (middle name “Katurian”–his parents were “funny people,” he says).

He’s penned some 400 fantastical tales, only one of which has been published, in which children meet gruesome ends–and two kids in town recently met the same fates as two of his characters. One was forced to swallow pieces of apple lined with razor blades. The other had his toes hacked off and bled to death. A third child is missing.

In Jim True-Frost’s nuanced performance, it’s clear that Katurian’s immersion in his own troubled imagination has made him arrogant, skittish, and ill prepared to face reality, especially the reality of brutal interrogators convinced of his guilt. With no resources, Katurian falls back on his own self-absorbed “creativity.” He mincingly insists that he has no obligation to do anything but write whatever stories he likes, and he can hardly make sense of them himself–he describes them as “something-esque.” In the terrifying and hilarious opening scene, this tweedy milksop barely able to draw breath tries to stand his ground while the zealous, bickering officers gear up to drag him next door and execute him.

Then the interrogation room disappears and a massive proscenium rolls downstage. Red velvet curtains part to reveal a suburban living room that might have been designed by Tim Burton. Katurian hops up on the stage within a stage and, with the help of cartoonishly costumed actors, plays out his story “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother,” about a boy who after spending seven years listening to his parents torture his mentally retarded brother ends up writing stories about abused children. It’s as if Katurian has fled into his overripe imagination to escape the interrogation. It’s also as if McDonagh couldn’t find a more natural way to integrate critical information about Katurian’s past into the opening scene.

McDonagh concludes the first act–and nearly sabotages it–with a scene in a holding cell between Katurian and his mentally retarded brother, Michal, who confessed to all three murders, he says, to avoid being tortured. Unlike the dialogue in the earlier scenes and in McDonagh’s previous plays, this talk is bloated, meandering, and repetitive; the story’s life-and-death stakes dry up even as Michal admits things that put both men in deeper trouble. It doesn’t help that the normally brilliant actor Michael Shannon as Michal is so tortured, blustering, and inhuman that no relationship can develop between him and Katurian.

At the beginning of act two McDonagh brings back the magic proscenium so that Katurian can tell his story “The Little Jesus.”

The cops think it’s likely the missing child was killed by someone reenacting this tale, which is apparently so gruesome that everyone, including Katurian, recoils from the details in horror. Acting it out is worse than gratuitous–it’s repugnant, especially since the story lacks the childlike charm of Katurian’s others. And none of the details has any bearing on the play’s outcome. Similarly, Michal’s confession to Katurian turns out to be only partly true,

and there’s no reason given for his lie–yet it sets Katurian down a path that defines the rest of the play. Most problematic, because it’s central to the plot, is Katurian’s uncharacteristically heroic insistence that his stories be saved no matter what.

By the end of the 90-minute first act, after the scene in the holding cell, director Amy Morton’s production has completely stalled. Fortunately she refires the engine in act two, especially when Katurian is returned to the cops for further interrogation. As in the opening scene, she lets nothing get in the way of each character’s desperate need to conclude this wretched chapter in his life, which makes McDonagh’s well-placed plot twists giddily satisfying. As Ariel, Yasen Peyankov is a blunt, menacing sadist, though his sadism springs from a deep concern for children. As the sociopath Tupolski, Tracy Letts is meticulous, impenetrable, and charming.

McDonagh and Morton tell a gripping story despite the script’s problems. In expanding his range, McDonagh may have lost some of his usual coherence, but the questions he raises about an artist’s responsibility toward his darkest creative impulses can be chewed over long after the final bows.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.