It has lately become popular to describe aspects of our society -- especially its legal system -- as "Kafkaesque."
The term came up during the labyrinthine response to Hurricane Katrina and has aptly been used to describe the bleak situations of wrongfully convicted individuals like Anthony Capozzi and beleaguered artists like Buffalo's Steve Kurtz.
Martin McDonagh's brilliant play "The Pillowman," then, is the perfect piece of twisted drama for our quite Kafkaesque times. In his abrasive and frenetic style, McDonagh wrote a play that questions the ever-more blurry intersection between art and crime, the inherent corruption of the justice system and, after all that, the disastrous effects of an abusive upbringing.
In a nicely constructed and tight production of the play, the New Phoenix Theatre has done justice to McDonagh's difficult material. Some of the acting is a bit rough, but the creepy set, haunting music and overall aesthetic make it an edgy offering not to be missed.
The play is set in an unspecified quasi-totalitarian state that, truth be told, resembles none so much as the current one. It follows the travails of Katurian Katurian (Peter Jaskowiak), a short-story writer who has been arrested along with his mentally challenged brother in connection with a string of child murders that have recently plagued the area. The good cop/bad cop team of Detectives Tupolski (Jeffrey Coyle) and Ariel (Gary Marz) sets about getting to the bottom of the situation, which involves delving into Katurian's extensive collection of gruesome short stories.
Occasionally flashing back in time to Katurian's youth, the play looks into the horrible past of the two brothers, whose parents (played with sufficient creepiness by Kevin Cain and Tanya Shaffer) engaged them in a twisted and violent literary experiment.
Jaskowiak adopts the Katurian persona brilliantly, taking on an alternately subservient and authoritarian attitude depending on whether he's speaking with the detectives or with his brother Michal, played with great feeling and skill by Richard Lambert.
Coyle's Tupolski, conversely, is undercooked and confused, skipping too frequently from one affectation to the next and never quite settling on the rascal of a character the role demands. That McDonagh gives Tupolski most of the funniest and most important lines unfortunately turns this drawback into a major distraction.
The set, by Franklin LaVoie, employs a shadow screen during several creepy flashback scenes, complemented by Kurt Schneiderman's disturbing lighting techniques. Paul Kozlowski's music completes this haunting aesthetic.
"The Pillowman" is exactly the sort of challenging theater we need and seems tailored especially for our post-Patriot Act world.
Review: Three stars (out of four)
Drama presented through Dec. 8 by New Phoenix Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park. For more information, call 853-1334 or visit www.newphoenixtheatre.org.