Two detainees, two cops, two (or is it three?) gruesome child-murders — that’s the triad of pitch-dark dualities that underpin The Pillowman, a Grimm-ly funny brothers-in-extremis fable that earned a best-play Tony nomination a decade or so ago for black-hearted Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh.
Cannily shaded performances from Mahboud Ebrahimzadeh and especially James Konicek are key draws in Forum Theatre’s revival at the Silver Spring Black Box, though Yuri Urnov’s production leans harder than strictly necessary on the play’s totalitarian-dystopia framing — it’s ultimately more device than driver for the text’s real concerns, a kind of Red Scare-herring to ratchet up questions about authority exercised and voices silenced — and the staging’s dramatic gambits never quite force an emotional checkmate.
It’s in the play’s intimate and ultimately horror-choked central sequence, with Ebrahimzadeh’s writer character returning to join his brother in a detention-block cell after being well and truly tortured by those cops down the hall, that McDonagh’s appalling design begins to truly emerge. The kid-killings the police may simply have been inventing in the long first scene in order to rattle the writer — his stories could be read to have subversive anti-authoritarian themes, you see — may actually have happened. And what the explosive, abusive interrogators have been suggesting — that the root cause may lie in Katurian’s hideously imaginative tales, nearly all of them about children whose innocence counts for nothing in an unfailingly cruel world — seems suddenly quite likely.
March 10 – April 2
at Silver Spring Black Box Theater
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
2 hours, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: PWYC – $18 – $38 (reserved seats)
Check for discounts!
And it’s here that Ebrahimzadeh and Konicek are asked to put flesh and sinew to the relationship that gives the play its true stakes: the bond between Katurian, the possibly too-clever writer, and Michal, his mentally and emotionally challenged younger sibling. They share a tormented past, though whether they’ve suffered to similar degrees might make a topic for a philosophy seminar; certainly one of them has made more out of the experience, while the other nonetheless moves through the world with what might be argued as less baggage.
Urnov has cultivated a nuanced and emotionally plangent rapport between Ebrahimzadeh and Konicek, who take the time to connect not just with the words and the claims in the text, but with each other’s eyes and bodies in the playing space. There’s a convincing sense that they’ve lived long together, that only they know what they know. And as the play’s circumstances force a change in that dynamic, the emotional cost for both men, and for the audience, is substantial.
There’s less conviction in the air in the opening and closing sequences, which find Katurian in that interrogation room with a nominally good cop (Jim Jorgensen) and the more volatile bad cop (Bradley Foster Smith) who’ll turn out to be, well, not all bad. An overdetermined performance here, an overclocked reading there, plus gestures in the direction of a concept (dread word) that implicates the audience without really giving it anything to do, all conspire to undermine a handsome and evocative design and the urgency of those central performances.
Those hypnotically dreadful tales McDonagh gives Katurian to tell, though, are endlessly worth hearing. One is a diabolically savvy riff on the Pied Piper story, another a grim meditation on what constitutes abuse in a family setting. A third, called “The Little Jesus,” may be more lingering in its brutality than the others, but it’s no less bleak in its assessment of the world’s hostility to idealism.
Then again, there’s “The Little Green Pig,” whose metaphors for contentment in difference — and for gentle but implacable justice — offer a warmer sort of moral lesson. And of course there’s the story that gives the play its title: despairing and beautiful in its own way, “The Pillowman” turns out to be, but with a reserve of kindness and pity that tells you McDonagh’s heart isn’t really in the darkness.
The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh . Directed by Yoru Urnov . Featuring Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Emma Lou Hébert, Jim Jorgensen, James Konicek, and Bradley Foster Smith . Scenic Design: Paige Hathaway . Lighting Design: Jason Arnold . Sound Design: Justin Schmitz . Props Design: Patti Kalil . Costume Design: Robert Croghan . Dramaturg: Laura Esti Miller . Stage Manager: Jessica Short . Produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Trey Graham.