‘The Pillowman’: An intense experience, for those who dare

Pillowman review

AMY LEBOVICS PHOTOGRAPHY

Michael Gardiner, right, with Sean Mannix in “The Pillowman.”

Don’t be fooled by the title. There is nothing soft and cuddly about the Martin McDonagh’s play “The Pillowman,” which is being presented at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood through April 3. (March 31 Update: The run has now been extended through April 10.) The play, which debuted in London in 2003 and was nominated for the Tony for Best Play when it ran on Broadway in 2005, is about as brutally dark as an absurdist dark comedy can be.

Which means, among other things, that it’s not for everyone. But I thoroughly enjoyed it last weekend, and hope fans of this sort of thing will make it to Englewood to fill the small number of seats available for the remainder of the run (the audience will be capped at 20 per show, because of the pandemic). An intimate setting is well suited for a play as dialogue-heavy and well crafted as this one.

The play is set in an unnamed totalitarian state. A writer named Katurian (Michael Gardiner) has been blindfolded and brought to a room to be interrogated by two cops. In a variation on the good cop/bad cop strategy, Ariel (Ilana Schimmel) is unapologetically sadistic while Tupolski (Sean Mannix) can seem somewhat friendly but chooses weird ways to assert his dominance.

After filling out a form by asking Katurian basic information about himself, for instance, Tupolski tears it up, saying, “I was just mucking around.” Katurian asks if that wasn’t a form, what was it, and Tupolski replies, “It was a piece of paper I was about to tear into two.”

From left: Sean Mannix, Michael Gardiner and Ilana Schimmel in “The Pillowman.”

Katurian is a short-story writer whose works often feature violence to children. And three local children have been murdered. The police, we soon learn, have more reason to suspect Katurian than just the stories.

Joining Katurian at the police station is his brother Michal (Jeremy Niles), who is “slow to get things sometimes,” in Katurian’s words. In the play’s first act, Katurian can hear Michal being tortured in the next room, even after Tupolski assures Katurian he won’t be harmed.

Tupolski is a high-ranking police official in a totalitarian state, he reminds Katurian. “What are you doing taking my word about anything?” he asks.

We learn more about Katurian and Michal’s past, and some of Katurian’s very-short stories are read or acted out — the one about the Pillowman, sort of an morbid fairy tale, is amazing in its own right. There is an autobiographical element to at least one of Katurian’s stories. Yet that doesn’t prove he’s the murderer.

McDonagh weaves together a dense, absorbing tale out of Katurian’s story, the truth of the murders (which eventually gets revealed, piece by piece), previous events in the characters’ lives, and the drama of the interrogation itself. He touches on politics and religion along the way. There is a lot going on in this play; you’d need to see it a few times to absorb it all.

Gardiner’s portrayal of Katurian is particularly strong. He’s nervous and eager-to-please (maybe a little too eager-to-please) at first. But he later emerges as a sort of relatable every man, someone who finds meaning through his art — even in this dire setting, he can’t help but beam when his stories are read — and is capable of bravery and sacrifice.

Mannix is also very good as Tupolski, giving him a showy smarminess that barely masks his shark-like qualities. Eventually, though, we see the bad in the good cop (and also, the good in the bad cop, Ariel).

To state the obvious, there are few opportunities, these days, to see live theater in New Jersey. And there would be few opportunities, under any circumstances, to see such a disturbing and uncompromisingly dark play in New Jersey. Most of the state’s theater companies simply don’t go there.

Again, this is not for everybody. But if you think it might be for you, don’t miss the opportunity.

Remaining performances of “The Pillowman” are on March 25-26 and April 1-3 and 8-10. Visit blackboxpac.com.

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