The great triumph of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” is that it is convincing, moving, often funny and unrelentingly cruel. If you take the first three away, you’re left with unrelentingly cruel – still a play about death, dark story-telling, repression and torture, but with no nuance and nothing much to compel us.
That’s what’s happening at Luna Theater, where “The Pillowman” appears to be a show written for the sole purpose of being Very Serious and Bleak. If you are familiar with McDonagh’s plays (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “The Lonesome West” among them), then you know the feeling of laughing and gasping at the same time – his plays are by turns horrifying and hilarious.
“The Pillowman” involves a writer who cherishes his stories about menaced and tormented children above anything or anyone else. But I couldn’t find McDonagh’s trademark brew except in a short part of the last half of this version staged by Luna’s producing artistic director, Gregory Scott Campbell.
The production, at Luna’s new and nicely functional space on Eighth Street at the backside of a church, made me wonder whether Campbell and the cast set out to toss aside the play’s outrageousness, and to what end. We meet the writer (Robert DaPonte) after he’s been hauled into a dreary police interrogation room, somewhere inside a totalitarian dictatorship. We’re supposed to think that he’s getting good-guy/bad-guy cop treatment (Ian Lithgow/Chris Fluck) because he’s written something the government sees as offensive. It turns out, though, that he’s been brought in for something much different – crimes that come into focus once we meet the writer’s retarded brother (a stand-out performance by John Zak).
This “Pillowman” is also marked by a slow call-and-response in its most revealing part, the second half of the first act, when the accused writer in this production shows almost no reaction to what his brother is telling him. The disconnect – I assume it was a part of the director’s vision — made me wonder why we were being invited to this affair. If the characters weren’t reacting in some of the play’s most urgent moments, why should the audience?
“The Pillowman” gets its name from a story the interrogated writer has created, about a prescient pillow that attempts to convince children to end their lives so they don’t have to endure painful futures they’re fated to face. That story is bizarre and shocking, and when you hear it you’re forced to consider shifting your alliances among the story’s characters. (Well, maybe that pillow knows something after all, has a point. What?! What am I thinking?)
The play itself should force the same uncomfortable thought process: Maybe the writer’s right. No, maybe the cops are right. And maybe in one moment you side with someone you never thought you’d possibly consider. But when “The Pillowman” comes with a one-dimensional vision, not much is worth your consideration.
“The Pillowman,” produced by Luna Theater, runs through Feb. 8 at the Luna Theater, Eighth Street between Bainbridge and South Streets. 215-704-0033 or www.lunatheater.org.