Billy Crudup in The Pillowman(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Billy Crudup in The Pillowman
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
It's serendipity of the darkest yet sunniest kind that had the Improbable Theatre's haunting, hilarious stage adaptation of Heinrich Hoffman's Shockheaded Peter return to New York shortly before Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman opened. The latter play is practically a scabrous reply to the former.

The Hoffman opus, in which children (and a few errant adults) undergo tribulations as a result of their misdeeds, is quite similar to the chilling stories that Katurian Katurian Katurian (that's his full name) of The Pillowman writes. Those stories get him in trouble with the police of an unnamed, fictional totalitarian state in which he lives with a tormented brother. "We like executing writers," one of the cops tells Katurian. "Dimwits we can execute any day." (Note: Some details of Katurian's stories and of the plot of The Pillowman will be revealed below.)

The obsequious Katurian (Billy Crudup) has penned a set of macabre tales that bear a remarkable resemblance to the actions of a real-life serial killer. In one story, a child feeds an abusive father apples containing razor blades, then dies when tiny apple men choke her -- and it so happens that a local youngster has succumbed after being forced to eat razor-stuffed apples. Another child in a Katurian story has had his toes lopped off, and the police have encountered a similar case. In a third Katurian tale, a little girl who believes she's the reincarnated Jesus is buried alive, and it looks as if a real child has now met the same asphyxiating fate.

Initially, McDonagh's drama with mountains of laughs -- which opened last year at London's National Theatre and deservedly picked up the Olivier Award as the season's best play -- seems a mesmerizing change of pace for the author. His previous works, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West, have all taken place in an Ireland of his mind. The same seething spot whence the London-born-and-bred dramatist radiated those quirky pieces has also sent forth his Cripple of Inishmaan and Lieutenant of Inishmore. As McDonagh's ghastly, giggly works have accumulated, it's become increasingly clear he's been having a high time mocking the stereotypical manner in which the Irish are perceived by the British -- and the world.

Billy Crudup, Zeljko Ivanek, and Jeff Goldblumin The Pillowman(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Billy Crudup, Zeljko Ivanek, and Jeff Goldblum
in The Pillowman
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Now, he drops the storied ways of Ireland to tell the tale of a beset storyteller. It's as if his string of thrills-chills-and-gags pieces has left him gagging, like the little girl invaded by vengeful apple men. In The Pillowman, a storyteller gets his comeuppance while insisting that his stories remain extant. But whether or not McDonagh is experiencing some inner struggle over the implications of his oeuvre, there's no denying that he's asking how valuable stories are, how valuable their creator is, and if -- as Katurian declares -- "the first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story "

He's also asking what right the storyteller has to practice his trade if the consequences are undeniably destructive. Katurian learns from good cop Tupolski (Jeff Goldblum) and bad cop Ariel (Zeljko Ivanek) that his brother Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg) is being tortured in an adjoining room. Within hours, Katurian himself is put into that room (high-walled, anonymous set by Scott Pask) with his impaired sibling, who confesses that he's committed the murders. It turns out that, tortured by his parents in Katurian's earshot when they were both very young, Michal interpreted his brother's stories as orders on how to act. (One of those stories is about a "pillowman" who encourages children facing unfortunate futures to take their own lives.)

A tale so dire that it might have been invented by the Brothers Grimm, McDonagh's play is fabulous in a couple senses of the word. It's a fable told with no end of inspiration -- an extended sketch that includes a few stories movingly spun, vivid characters quickly conjured, and as many laughs as a dumbed-down Farrelly Brothers flick. The difference from the work of the Farrellys is that The Pillowman is smart and subtle. If some observers consider McDonagh's intricate examination of storytelling and its sometimes unwanted consequences pretentious, they will have failed to respond to the playwright's deliberately unresolved ambiguities.

They will also have failed to respond to director John Crowley's superb realization of McDonagh's disturbing play. Except for some overacted nervousness in his first scene, Billy Crudup is as impressive here as he was in the revival of The Elephant Man. Wiry and wired, Crudup is always believable as a boyish man having difficulty maturing, and he does it again in The Pillowman. Jeff Goldblum, built on a scale that dwarfs his colleagues, brings back-handed humor to the role of the questionably good cop Tupolski. His is perhaps the production's major acting contribution in that he walks McDonagh's thin satire/gravity line so nimbly. The always reliable Zeljko Ivanek plays the now-gruff, now-soft Ariel well, and Michael Stuhlbarg is a painfully sympathetic Ariel. Madeline Martin, who said practically nothing as the brain-damaged title character in the Roundabout production of Joe Egg, says little again but is touching as a girl who thinks she's the reborn savior.

Set and costume designer Pask, sound designer Paul Arditti, and composer Paddy Cunneen repeat their London assignments. As lofted by this suave team and their colleagues, The Pillowman is the play of the year, without a doubt.