The Pillowman marks a stylistic change of pace for McDonagh, known for gritty, often violent, but largely naturalistic localized dramas like The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West. Set in an unnamed, vaguely Eastern European totalitarian state, The Pillowman first strikes Pinteresque and then expressionistic and Grand Guignol notes.
The action opens on a spare interrogation room, where writer Katurian Katurian (he has the same first and last name, like Humbert Humbert in Nabakov's Lolita) is sitting blindfolded. Soon, Katurian (Crudup) is being interrogated by two corrupt and comically cruel detectives, Tupolski (Goldblum) and Ariel (Ivanek), about a series of child murders which resemble episodes in the author's numerous, unpublished, and disturbing fairy tale-like short stories. Also under arrest is Katurian's half-witted brother Michel (Stuhlbarg), who grew up on his sibling's stories and, it emerges, indirectly inspired them.
The script is replete with macabre tales, some desribed by the cops, some told by Katurian to his brother, some related directly to the audience and enacted by a supporting cast including Ted Koch, Virginia Louise Smith, Jesse Shane Bronstein and Madeleine Martin.
John Crowley directs the play. Bob Boyett, Robert Fox, The Shubert Organization and The National Theatre produce. Pillowman is the third National show to be brought over by Boyett, after the recent Jumpers and Michael Frayn's Democracy. Both Pillowman and Democracy were nominated for the Olivier Awards Best Play prize. In what might be considered a minor upset, Democracy lost to The Pillowman.
McDonagh was Tony Award-nominated for Best Play two years running, for the Broadway transfers of The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (1998) and The Lonesome West (1999). Pillowman opened at London's National Theatre on Nov. 13, 2003, in the Cottesloe.