When it comes to in-yourface drama, the Valley’s theater scene can be woefully lacking. So it’s a welcome oddity to find Martin Mc-Donagh seeing such welcome reception here lately.
A British playwright with an ear for Irish peasant talk, a penchant for absurdly bloody violence and comic sensibility as black as octopus ink, McDonagh got wondrously chilling treatment by Algonquin Theater Company last season with mother-daughter drama “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” followed by a recent, so-so spin of the sibling drama “The Lonesome West.”
Actors Theatre is making its first foray into the playwright’s world of riveting ultra-violence with “The Pillowman,” about a children’s fable writer who’s dragged into a police station for questioning when reallife child murders begin echoing his stories.
Even approaching the three-hour mark, this “Pillowman” is a taut nail-biter of a show. Director Matthew Wiener keeps the pace brisk and the tone teetering on the edge of delicious suspense and uncomfortable laughs. This is a comedy, really, after all.
The children’s writer, Katurian (played by Christian Miller), is a disturbed sort: He killed his parents after their years of abusing a mentally damaged brother, Ariel (Oliver Wadsworth), and now pens short stories grimmer than the Grimms’.
Children’s toes are hacked off. Apples with razor blades are swallowed. And, in one particularly grisly tale, a young girl with an absurd messianic complex is crucified and buried alive by her foster parents.
Two of those fictional scenarios — the toes and the apples, we’re told — have been recently enacted, and both Katurian and his brother are fiercely interrogated by a pair of policemen (Cale Epps and Jon Gentry), hoping to find the third missing child.
Kudos to director Wiener, who uses local talent for three of four leading roles. It’s a showcase for Miller and Epps, Southwest Shakespeare Company alum gone Equity. Childsplay’s Gentry, meanwhile, puts his clipped, crisp delivery to masterful use.
But it’s Wadsworth, a regional thespian last seen in Actors Theatre’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” who underwhelms: Playing the writer’s developmentally disabled brother, he channels the grand film cliché of the mentally disabled manboy (recent offenders: Giovanni Ribisi in 1999’s “The Other Sister,” Sean Penn’s 2001 “I Am Sam”).
All said, “Pillowman” is a worthwhile adventure into darkness, a gripping display of great acting and a story line that questions the exploitation of children, both mentally and physically, and the lasting effects thereof.
It’s not my favorite Mc-Donagh play — let’s see how Valley audiences react to the blood-spurting whimsy of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” which will open Actors Theatre’s 2007-08 season — but it is a deliciously disquieting evening of theater. The kind rarely seen, and sorely lacking, in what all too often is regarded as the Valley of the benign.