A man is hauled into an interrogation room, a place of torture and castigation, and it is clear from the start that you have entered McDonagh-land, where nihilism settles over everything like a fine dust. You nearly choke on it in “The Pillowman,” a nightmarish stroll around the park—flecked with humor to make it palatable—from playwright Martin McDonagh, currently at the Steppenwolf. The subject of this cross-examination, we soon learn, is Katurian (Jim True-Frost), a writer of short fiction who tends towards tales of young children and the gruesome ways in which they are murdered. Someone, the police inform him, has been mimicking these stories; they suspect the guilty party is Katurian, or most certainly his mentally deficient brother, Michal (Michael Shannon). Things are complicated further by the setting: a nameless, totalitarian dictatorship, where the dystopia fits in nicely with the nihilism. Nothing is fair, and nothing is quite as it seems, and the result is a play that is entertainingly vicious, if not exactly chilling. Throughout the investigation, we hear—or see, acted out—some of Katurian’s stories. They are just stories, he says in his defense. Art for art’s sake. Or rather, storytelling, for storytelling’s sake—which is essentially what McDonagh is doing here. Don’t read to far into the themes that tease around the edges—the Russian-sounding names; the allusions to Kafka and Dostoyevsky; True-Frost’s wardrobe, which looks like something Warren Beatty wore in “Reds.” None of that matters in the end. Nor does it matter that Katurian is something of a twat, and that his stories are more about shock than awe. The point—like that of any ghost story—is to both thrill and make the skin crawl. In that, McDonagh (and director Amy Morton) succeed. Act Two, however, does no one any favors. It offers nothing new about the characters or their fates, and the play could end quite satisfyingly after Act One. The second half is really just an opportunity for more storytelling—from the characters on stage, and from McDonagh himself. At some point, though, enough is enough. (Nina Metz)
This production is now closed.