This season, barely a city in America will be deprived of Martin McDonagh’s macabre “The Pillowman.” After all, what regional theater could resist this deliciously twisty tale, in which a writer in an unnamed totalitarian state is interrogated for a series of child murders based on his own unpublished narratives? Originally directed by John Crowley in London and on Broadway, the play combines visceral thrills with a teasing thoughtfulness (does violent art breed violence?), a political context and plenty of potential for stylized theatrical flourishes. This solid Steppenwolf production digs with precision into McDonagh’s dark humor, although by the end it emphasizes the more contemplative, gentle elements of the work over its raw creepiness.
There’s a lot of adrenaline but a slight lack of jolting shocks in this production, directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton. The dramatic reversals tend not to snap us to attention with the crackle they could potentially muster. But there are definitely fine performances and nuanced character development, particularly in the portrayal of the two at-odds detectives working on the case.
As Ariel, a high-strung cop who can’t wait to hook up the writer Katurian (Jim True-Frost) to some electrodes and torture him into a confession, Yasen Peyankov seems from the start like a rubber band waiting to snap — annoyed not just at his subject’s bewilderment at the allegations but at his partner Tupolski’s apparent nonchalance.
Peyankov’s entertaining impatience is paired perfectly with Tracy Letts’ mild-mannered Tupolski, and the two play off each other with delightful glee. Letts expertly makes Tupolski’s digs at Ariel seem unintended, but they just keep coming, getting deeply underneath Ariel’s sensitive skin. By the end both these cops seem like fully fleshed-out beings, not just one-dimensional jokes.
The police, though, probably shouldn’t overshadow the lead quite as much as they do. As Katurian, the writer of gothic tales in which terrible things inevitably happen to young children, True-Frost brings a highly sympathetic, everyman quality. But while well played, the part comes off a touch generic and overly meek. As we discover Katurian’s past — one of his stories has an autobiographical bent — it becomes clear this man has suffered enough to have a bit more of a backbone, or at least to have earned a more specific personality.
With less harsh choices, though, True-Frost brings out the softer side of this work. Nowhere is this more apparent than in how he relates the various stories, which are pretty terrific in and of themselves. True-Frost tells the title tale almost as if it were a reassuring bedtime story rather than one more appropriate to a campfire scarefest.
Michael Shannon’s portrayal of Katurian’s brother Michal feeds this gentler sensibility, capturing the brain-damaged figure’s childlike innocence more effectively than his dangerous naivete.
For some of the stories, director Morton and set designer Loy Arcenas roll out a proscenium stage from the rear, replete with deep red curtain and Grand Guignol-style players to act out the stories. It’s a clever way to stage McDonagh’s layered stories-within-stories. But it also adds more distance than horror to the narratives, making this a contemplative “Pillowman” more likely to spur ponderings on the nature of art than to stick in your craw and haunt your dreams.