His eerie plays, which often contain senseless violence, both repulse and transfix audiences. But as presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, there's nothing either repulsive or transfixing about The Pillowman. When one reads that audiences were known to "scream uncontrollably" at last year's Broadway staging, perhaps a review is not so much in order here as is a disclaimer: Any resemblance between this Rep production and what McDonagh intended is purely coincidental.
The plot is the same. In an unnamed Eastern European dictatorship, a failed writer of cruel children's stories is being interrogated. (The writer, Katurian, is surely a stand-in for McDonagh, whose plays are fixated on quiet terrors.) The viewer soon learns that several recent child murders share striking similarities to the events in some of Katurian's stories. These can't be copycat killings because Katurian's grim yarns haven't been published. Suspicion is directed at their author and his dim brother, the only other person who knows the particulars of these bizarre tales.
What we have here is a chain of storytelling. McDonagh is a storyteller; he in turn has created a protagonist who is a storyteller, and the actor who portrays Katurian must be a storyteller. But the chain cannot stop there: The director also must be a storyteller. A director has to come to terms with what a play is saying, at least to the point where a production is able to convey some semblance of a point of view.
McDonagh is not a polemicist who's going to clobber us with a message. The very setting of The Pillowman a totalitarian state where all are told what to think suggests that McDonagh is championing the right of the individual to think for himself, regardless of how mediocre that mind might be. So sure, The Pillowman should be open to various interpretations. But it's as if director Steven Woolf has chosen Katurian's plea, "I'm not trying to say anything," as the production's mantra, because this Pillowman says nothing. And as King Lear wisely warned, "Nothing will come of nothing." A viewer might leave the theater wondering why this dull play has garnered so much attention, when in fact the viewer has only seen a shadow of The Pillowman.
The actors are even unsure as to what story they're telling. Joseph Collins renders Katurian in an artificial manner which might well be the proper route to take if everyone else in the cast was working in that same stylized realm. But they're not; Collins is acting alone. And every time the play stops so that he can tell another story, it really stops.
The extended scene between Katurian and his brain-damaged brother (which in McDonagh's script is Act Two but in this staging is the back half of a numbingly long Act One) is monochromatic. Where is the relationship between these two? Last year Timothy McCracken was wonderfully versatile as half the cast of the Rep's Stones in His Pockets. But here, as the simple-minded brother, he is reduced to playing essentially one note.
The most graphic disparity in acting styles is the contrast between Collins and Anderson Matthews, who enacts the cynical "good cop" in charge of the interrogation. Matthews' portrayal is wrought in reality; he creates a weary, quixotic human being with whom we can relate. Is this naturalistic approach correct? In a production so at odds with itself, there's no way of knowing. But at least when Matthews is onstage the story is involving. He is the life preserver we cling to in an otherwise lifeless evening; for that we can only be thankful.