By MARTY CLEAR
The acute d epth of The Pillowman is not for everyone, but the play has been a hit. Its run is extended .
The critical and popular success of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman may be one of the most encouraging surprises in American theater in recent years.
The difficult, unsettling play about art and murder in a totalitarian state won all sorts of prestigious awards during its Broadway run, and it was nominated for most of the major awards it didn't win. This year it has become one of the most widely produced plays in regional theaters. And its production by Jobsite Theater at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is so popular that its run was extended even before opening night.
The reason that's so encouraging is that it may indicate that audiences in the Tampa Bay area and across the country are ready for dense, demanding theater that leaves them shaken and stirred, not merely diverted and amused.
The powerful Jobsite production features some jarring performances that enhance the play's effectiveness. It's not an easy play for the actors or the audience: Dry and often very funny humor coexists uncomfortably with the darkest of subject matter, and the cast (directed forcefully by David M. Jenkins) handles the balance well.
The Pillowman starts with two cops in an unnamed totalitarian state brutally questioning a writer named Katurian about a series of gruesome murders of children. Katurian specializes in dark fables that have an unexpectedly hopeful twist.
But two of the murder victims have met bizarre fates similar to those of Katurian's characters. The cops suspect Katurian and his brain-damaged brother, whom they are interrogating in the next room.
From that dark beginning, McDonagh (who also wrote The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which Jobsite produced memorably) descends further into the stark recesses of the spirit. Almost everyone here has been tortured in some way, almost everyone is capable of profound evil, yet almost no one (at least among the main characters) totally lacks nobility.
As for Katurian, he is not quite as blameless as he first seems, but ultimately he cares only that his writing will survive, no matter what fate befalls him and his beloved brother.
The play is full of flashy roles, and the cast makes the most of them. Paul Potenza is perhaps most impressive as the brain-damaged but oddly insightful brother, but Ryan McCarthy and Matt Lunsford as the cops and Steve Garland as Katurian are all equally riveting. McCarthy may go over the top in a scene or two, but he's always entertaining to watch, and his exaggerated emotion forms an effective counterpoint to Lunsford's clenched, creepy restraint.
Katrina Stevenson offers some telling costumes, from Lunsford's starched shirt to Potenza's ill-fitting sweater. Brian Smallheer's set is okay, but doesn't add substance or spice to the production.
It's difficult to recommend The Pillowman without reservations. It is as repellent as it is riveting, with violence overt and implied, and its strong language will put off some people. But The Pillowman is packed with ideas and emotions that don't evaporate quickly.
The Pillowman runs through Nov. 5 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Shimberg Playhouse; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday; $19.50-$24.50, plus service charge. (813) 229-7827; www.tbpac.org.