New York — As a young boy growing up in a working-class London district, playwright Martin McDonagh was fascinated with the New Testament tale of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus. At first, he recalls, he identified with the good thief, the one who accepted Christ's invitation to salvation. But as he grew older, he found a closer empathy for the one who took his chances on hell.
"He was like Johnny Rotten," says the 35-year-old McDonagh with a glint in his eye, describing his antihero as a punk rocker of biblical times. "The only thing the unlucky [guy] probably did was steal a bag of potatoes." It's hardly a surprising evolution for a writer who gained a "bad boy" reputation after the breakout success of his "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" in 1996. He quickly followed with a slew of plays, less famous perhaps but no less sardonic in their depiction of claustrophobic rural Irish life, including "The Lonesome West" and "The Cripple of Inishmaan." Born to Irish expatriates, McDonagh left school at 16, went on the dole for 10 years, and by the time he was 27 had four plays running in London.
In his new work "The Pillowman," however, McDonagh has chosen to plow far different and more disturbing terrain. Its protagonist Katurian -- a butcher by day, aspiring writer by night -- has been detained in an unnamed totalitarian state for his lurid and violent short stories. Among the 400 or so confiscated tales is a variant of the biblical thieves' story called "The Three Gibbet Crossroads." But his brutal interrogation by two detectives is largely centered on three other tales -- "The Little Applemen," "The Tale of the Town on the River" and "The Little Jesus" -- which describe the gratuitous mutilation and murder of children, including the ingestion of razor blades, the chopping off of toes and a crucifixion. They have apparently inspired a killer to turn fantasy into fact.
Oh, and one other thing: The play is a comedy.
After premiering at London's National Theatre last year, "The Pillowman" transferred to the West End, where it was heaped with raves and honors. The move to Broadway, with the same director, John Crowley, but featuring an American cast -- Billy Crudup as Katurian, Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek as the detectives -- has also been met with near-unanimous critical approbation. Last week, the production received six Tony nominations, including nods for Crudup and Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Katurian's mentally deficient brother. "Pillowman" is considered the underdog in a battle with John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" for the best play Tony.
Critics on both sides of the pond have hailed "The Pillowman" as boldly original, signaling a new maturity in the work of McDonagh. Audiences, at least on Broadway, have responded more ambivalently. "Pillowman," whose audience skews younger than those of most Broadway plays, has had its share of walkouts. One middle-aged lawyer and her husband left at intermission after she spent the last minutes of the first act with hands over her ears. "I couldn't bear it, it was so upsetting," she said, asking to remain anonymous. Theater chat rooms have also been filled with debate. As one poster put it: "I was distracted by what kind of sick mind could have come up with such a play?"
For his part, McDonagh says he can't understand why more people don't think that way. "It seems so natural to me," he says without irony, adding that although he never writes anything just to shock or horrify, he never censors his imagination. "I'm more worried about boring people than offending them."
Indeed, sitting in a crowded theatrical hangout, the playwright, with his matinee good looks and shy charm, seems light years away from the tipsy upstart who nearly got into a fistfight with Sean Connery during an awards luncheon in London.
Though he acknowledges that he has always been treated fairly in the press, McDonagh stopped giving interviews five years ago and has only recently acceded to requests, largely to support "Pillowman." "Besides," says McDonagh, a vegetarian since his early teens, "it's nice to get loads of free booze and food."
McDonagh says he's not averse to sentiment, as long as it's earned. Terrence Malick's "Badlands" and the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life" are among this film lover's top 10. He loves Sam Peckinpah's movies as well, not for their slow-motion violence, he says, but because the director is so good at capturing the "sadness and truth" of men going to meet their doom.