PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Pillowman: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Pillowman: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly The good news is that Broadway has a brand-new play on its boards today—Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, which was plumped up and presented April 10 at the Booth after a hit gig in London. The bad news is it's the season's fifth and, alas, last new play, barely giving Tony nominators a selection for a full slate of Best Play contenders.

Martin McDonagh; Billy Crudup; Michael Stuhlbarg; John Crowley; Jeff Goldblum; Zeljko Ivanek; Amy Ryan & Maggie Gyllenhaal; Christopher Sieber; Walter Bobbie; Denis O'Hare; Peter Sarsgaard; Brian F. O & Heather Goldenhersh
Martin McDonagh; Billy Crudup; Michael Stuhlbarg; John Crowley; Jeff Goldblum; Zeljko Ivanek; Amy Ryan & Maggie Gyllenhaal; Christopher Sieber; Walter Bobbie; Denis O'Hare; Peter Sarsgaard; Brian F. O & Heather Goldenhersh Photo by Aubrey Reuben

But the good news is good enough to offset the sorry state of affairs that is the bad news. McDonagh's eleventh-hour contribution to the season's handful of new offerings (Doubt, Democracy, Gem of the Ocean and Brooklyn Boy) brings real hope and a beating pulse back to the close to-flatlining cause of straight plays on Broadway. Rejoice!

Let it be said at the outset: The Pillowman is not for the faint hearted or feather-headed. It's a kinky, disturbingly unpredictable, downright nightmare-making mix of humor and horror, scaled down to mundane, human size for easy accessibility. Think of it as a tumbling row of dominos—how an abused childhood can lead to a bizarrely off-centered creative impulse which, in turn, when interpreted literally, can turn into profound tragedy.

We're in deep, churning, uncharted waters now, and McDonagh's wild-swinging wit is at the tiller, as it was and has been since his first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. That unique humor is what pulled Billy Crudup aboard to play a McDonagh surrogate, the writer of the very grim(!), fiendishly twisted fairy tales now under government investigation.

"I think Martin has so layered himself into the material and into all of the characters that you can't escape his voice," the actor acknowledged at the after-party, held at a brand-new venue (Osteria Stella on West 50th), as befitted a brand-new play. "He has a very distinctive voice, and his humor is crystal clear. I think that was one of the first things that I related to about the piece, which is probably one of the reasons I was lucky enough to be cast. When I auditioned originally, I recognized we had a shared sensibility about the value of black comedy. That's one of Martin's most vivid traits, and I understand that."

The party's big surprise was that Michael Stuhlbarg, who is especially effective as Crudup's somewhat backward and highly impressionable younger brother, played the role without a fat suit. Like Robert DeNiro and DeNiro's Bloody Mama before him, Shelley Winters, Stuhlbarg did the very Method-y, vanity-free thing of really gaining the weight. "I put on about 30 pounds for the show," he said. "Before we started rehearsing, I spoke with John Crowley, the director, and asked him what he thought I should do because I was just coming off a play at Lincoln Center, Belle Epoque, where I had put on some weight for that show as well. And he said, `Shave the beard, keep the hair—we'll decide about that later—and don't go on a diet.' His vision for the role was to be a bit heavy."

There were psychological underpinnings to this vision, said Stuhlbarg. "I think it had to do with the back story John and I wanted to create for this character. We felt he was someone who sat around a lot, didn't get a lot of physical activity and probably ate for comfort."

The brothers are brutally and abrasively interrogated, Good Cop/Bad Cop fashion, by Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek. Goldblum the Good has a field day with McDonagh's dime-turning horror humor. "The character is complicated and surprising—like the rest of the play, but he certainly does have a righteous sort of feeling about children being hurt."

It is, save for a few guest-shots at The Play What I Wrote, the first New York acting he has done since he was Malvolio for Joe Papp up in Central Park. (He made his Broadway debut for Papp in Two Gentlemen of Verona, which, lest we forget, won the Tony over Follies for Best Musical of 1972). "I've been busy, thank goodness" [in films: The Big Chill, The Right Stuff, etc], but I'm thrilled and lucky and grateful to be back here."

Ivanek, rising to a particularly vicious display of Bad Cop, is no stranger to this genre, having drawn more hisses that Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal—"I'm the one who pushed Gary Oldham into the pit of boars"—but he almost gave this role the go-by.

"I love this play," he admitted. "I saw it in London a year and a half ago. It's just one of my favorite evenings in the theatre. But I came thisclose to not actually coming in and reading for it. I kept reading the script and going, 'I don't think I'm right for this, I don't think I'm right for this'—like what I thought the part needed in terms of fitting in with the rest of the play. Finally, on the third day of doing this, I decided, 'Well, if I'm not sure, I should probably go in and let them decide. Then if I have a decision to make later, I will."

Casting director Jim Carnahan, who picked Twelve Angry Men and ten more for Democracy (which ends its run Sunday), had only four roles to fill here, but they were tricky and took an inordinate amount of time and two trips to the coast to cast precisely. Goldblum, a surprise, wasn't pulled in until the casting net was thrown a second time.

Unlike the other heavily (Irish) accented works of McDonagh seen here (Beauty Queen, The Lonesome West, A Skull in Connemara), The Pillowman has no real nationality, making Carnahan's job marginally easier. Jim Broadbent, David Tenant, Nigel Lindsay and Adam Godley originated the roles in London that Goldblum, Crudup, Ivanek and Stuhlbarg reprised on these shores—and nothing appears to have been lost in the transfer.

"It's set, loosely, somewhere in Eastern Europe," said director Crowley, who, like McDonagh, is an old soul of 35. "It was very important for us that, whatever accent the actors used, that it be closest to what the bulk of the audience would be so the accent would be invisible. We adjusted a few words here and there which culturally would not have translated. We worked very hard on the text so the actors here would make it their own."

Crowley previously directed Juno and the Paycock Off-Broadway for Roundabout, but this marked his Broadway debut, and his brother, set designer Bob Crowley (Capeman, Carousel, Aida), came over from England to cheer his bro on. He recently set Mary Poppins a flying and will repeat that chore when she alights on Broadway. Meanwhile, he's working on—designing and, possibly, directing—a stage production of Disney's animated Tarzan which had an Oscar-winning Best Song from Phil Collins. "It's called Tarzan—unless I can think of a better title." (The Brits are nothing if not wry.)

Harvey Fierstein cashed in his chips after his Fiddler on the Roof matinee and went home, but, otherwise, the opening night crowd looked like a Broadway block party, with stars from the immediate neighborhood pouring into the Booth, smelling a new hit.

"I just finished a matinee and strolled over," said Dirty Rotten Scoundrel John Lithgow. Ditto Richard Kind and Brooks Ashmanskas from The Producers. Dame Edna Everage was represented by her manager, Barry Humphries, and his son, Rupert.

After putting in a hard day at the office (as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, which officially reaches Studio 54 April 26), Amy Ryan arrived for a relatively lighthearted evening in the theatre, on the arm of her On the Mountain co-star, Ebon Moss Bachrach.

Flying the Spamalot colors, Christopher Sieber commuted from the adjacent Shubert and was asked what he felt like, playing to capacity and appreciative crowds. "Like a rock star," he answered. "When you walk out for the curtain call, the cheering is deafening." Jim Caruso butted into the conversation with "You know what that's like, Harry." His Monday night "Cast Party" events continue at Birdland, with Maureen McGovern spending her night away from Little Women there this week. In the wings: Jeff Daniels who sings, plays the guitar and writes songs like "If William Shatner Can, I Can Too."

Caruso also sang the praises of the star's mother, GeorgeAnne Crudup, who was present with her other two sons, Brooks and Tommy (who runs the talent department for Tony Danza's TV show). "She's the hippest lady I ever met in my life," Caruso sang out with gusto. "I get all of my clothes from her at Ralph Lauren. She's beautiful and smart and has taken her kids to the theatre since they were babies. She's a great lady."

John Bolton, who stands by for Sieber and three or four others in Spamalot, also trekked over. A show he did in Washington last spring—Frank Loesser's last, Señor Discretion Himself—will try again this winter at the Pasadena Playhouse, and he has been pitched the part he did. And a show he did in San Francisco last summer—The Opposite of Sex—has gone through "some very good changes," angling for Broadway in the fall. He's thinking, He's thinking... Director Walter Bobbie, of Sweet Charity a block away at the Hirschfeld, extended his hand to director Crowley and congratulated him as they went into the Booth. "I don't say 'Break a leg' anymore," quipped Bobbie, who is waiting for his leading lady, Christina Applegate, to mend from a broken foot but is beginning previews April 11 with Charlotte d'Amboise. Sure-footed Denis O'Hare said he was "glad to be back, with a job." He was greeted warm-heartedly by one of his recent fellow Assassins, Alexander Gemignani.

Raul Esparza, parking his Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for a very dark night out, was all a-gush about the cheery responses the show has been drawing in previews (it opens April 28 at the former Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the newly dubbed Hilton Theatre)

"The audiences have been extraordinary, and it's so much fun to do," Esparza exclaimed. "I keep saying, 'I'm going to The Magic Kingdom.' (I know it's not a Disney show.) When that overture starts, it's just wonderful. It's a delightful, gentle, loving show. And it's been packed! I've never performed before so many kids in my life! It's lovely."

Another Chitty Chitty denizen, Robert Sella, was crowing about his new son—named, clearly for success with the ladies and maybe the marquee—Valentino Sella, who right now is with his mother, Enid Graham, visiting her mother in Texas, but she'll be back in a couple of weeks to begin rehearsing The Constant Wife with Kate Burton, Lynn Redgrave, Kathryn Meisle, Michael Cumpsty, John Dossett, Dennis Holtz, Kathleen McNenny and John Ellison Conlee. The latter, who has been musically occupied of late (saluting Sheldon Harnick at the 92nd St. Y, playing Alice Ripley's significant other in the "Encores!" edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and handling the mortal title role in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater for York Theatre's "Musicals in Mufti" series), said he was happy to go easy on the musical scales for a spell. "I play the guy who sneezes in Act II. It's a brilliant sneezing part. They don't writing sneezing parts like that any more."

Conlee's Full Monty co-hort, Patrick Wilson, was back among us after a heavy whirl of filmmaking (The Alamo, The Phantom of the Opera). "I just wrapped a movie called American Gothic, and I'm doing a movie called Running With Scissors." And is a return to the Broadway stage in the cards? "If all the dates can be worked out," he vows, you'll see him in the Robert Redford role in the upcoming revival of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park.

Others in attendance included Harvey Keitel, Julianne Moore, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, Nancy Opel (holding the Fiddler flag) with David Ives, Penny Fuller, Claudia Shear, Hurlyburly's Josh Hamilton with Kelli Thorn, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, Edie Falco, Oscar nominee (for Maria Full of Grace) Catalina Sandino Moreno, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Brian F. O'Byrne and Heather Goldenhersh (both from Doubt), Anthony ("ER") Edwards and the ABBA boys, Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.

For one of the first-nighters, the evening was a little like going home again: David Bowie, whose only previous contact with Broadway was at the Booth, replacing Philip Anglim in the original production of The Elephant Man. (Interestingly, Crudup did the revival of The Elephant Man.) "It was a wonderful way to go back," he said. "What a superb play! It certainly did seem nostalgic to me. Even the smell of the place." And did that stir up some Broadway juices? "Actually, that has occurred to me. We'll see what the future brings." And would the future be bringing him in a musical? "I'm not saying."

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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