Jeff Mills as Katurian (right) and Matt Tavianini as his brother Michal in Martin McDonagh's <em>The Pillowman</em>.
David Bazemore

Martin McDonagh-the author of The Pillowman-has been called “one of the theatrical luminaries of the 21st century,” and his plays have been described as “a cross between Kafka and the Brothers Grimm.” He is also a hot property, with Equity productions on both sides of the Atlantic and a film credit for In Bruges, currently playing in theaters. I read the script of The Pillowman after it won the 2004 Olivier Award for Best Play and found it to be one of the best examples of black humor since Joe Orton.

So it was with great anticipation that I went to see the production by Genesis West at Center Stage. As you enter, the actor who plays Katurian (a very capable Jeff Mills) is sitting in a chair blindfolded. The audience tiptoes in, talking in hushed whispers, thinking that the play has begun. The set by Theodore Michael Dolas is an interrogation room with high green walls. Enter two detectives: Tupolski (Dirk Blocker), the “good” cop, and Ariel (Tom Hinshaw), a sadistic brute who enjoys torturing people. The “pillowman” of the title refers to a character in one of Katurian’s stories that leads waifs out of their misery by coordinating fatal accidents for them.

Katurian lives in a totalitarian state and is being interrogated about the gruesome content of his stories and their similarities to a series of child murders. The two tormentors tell him his mentally impaired brother Michael (Matt Tavianini) is being tortured in the next room. What’s so funny about that? The humor is supposed to come, in part, from the two cops, who are like Mutt and Jeff, or something out of Waiting for Godot.

But the pacing of the play was as slow as molasses, and the numerous pregnant pauses don’t do justice to McDonagh’s snappy, sardonic dialogue. The first act itself was at least an hour-and-a-half long, and director Maurice Lord’s minimal blocking reduces the actors to “talking heads” as opposed to agents of action.

There were some very funny moments, such as when a little green girl (Amanda Berning) appeared, or when a boy (Rudy Martinez) plays the young Katurian together with his grotesque and sadistic parents (Leslie Gangl Howe and Howard Howe). These characters interject some much needed levity and playfulness. But despite a game effort by Jeff Mills in the starring role, The Pillowman turned out to be a sleeper.


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