Killer Fairytale

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Studio Theatre Squanders Potential of Dark Comedy'Pillowman'

After a stellar run of recent plays, the Studio Theatre stumbles in its ham-fisted adaptation of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman.”

The blackly comedic drama tells the tale of Katurian, a writer who lives in an unnamed police state and spends his time crafting gruesome fiction dressed up as sweet little children’s stories. “The Pillowman” opens with Katurian sitting in a police interrogation room, fielding questions about a series of recent murders. In a couple of cases, children are killed in the exact same ways depicted in Katurian’s fairytales.

Katurian denies any involvement, despite the cops’ best efforts (including a little torture) at extracting a confession. “I just write stories. That’s all I do,” Katurian blurts out. “That’s my life. I stay in and I write stories.”

Oh, but what stories they are. In “The Little Apple Men,” a girl carves figurines out of apples with a hidden treat (razor blades) concealed inside for her father. In “The Little Jesus,” another girl wants to be just like Jesus and ends up with the same fate. These and other highly original horror stories provide endless fodder for Tupolski and Ariel, the sardonic—and in Ariel’s case, borderline psychotic—cops who relentlessly interrogate Katurian.

“We like executing writers. Dimwits we can execute any day. And we do,” Ariel bellows. “But you execute a writer, it sends out a signal, you know?”

Irish-born, London-raised McDonagh’s crackling dialogue renders the characters in sharp relief, allowing us to become familiar with their personalities in rapid order. And set designer Debra Booth’s work is stellar, especially when the set expands from the bleak interrogation room to the Tim Burton-esque sequences in which some of Katurian’s stories are recreated.

The potential of “The Pillowman” is immense, but aside from Tupolski, convincingly portrayed by Denis Arndt, the main characters sometimes seem to just be delivering their lines as opposed to feeling them.

Tom Story, an accomplished actor with numerous impressive credits, struggles in his role as Katurian. His nervous, high-pitched and rapid-fire delivery is believable at first (he is being interrogated about murders, after all), but over the course of the play, his tone rarely changes and the lack of vocal inflection becomes mundane. Story does occasionally excel when projecting the smug, self-satisfied writer’s pride in his largely unpublished work.

Hugh Nees, another experienced actor, works hard to bring realism to Ariel’s menacing, pit-bull character, but he’s not physically imposing enough to pull it off. His bad-cop role lacks authenticity despite the fact that Ariel has some of the best lines in the play.

Tupolski, however, is highly believable as the “good cop” with a sarcastic streak who has seen and heard it all.

“The Pillowman” has potential and perhaps the cast members will settle more comfortably into their roles, but early into its run, the play doesn’t live up to the high standards set by the Studio Theatre’s previous cutting-edge productions.

The Pillowman through April 22 Studio Theatre 1501 14th St., NW. Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 17, 2012