Living & Entertainment

Not for the squeamish, 'Pillowman' is dark, brutal and brilliant

Sean Neely, left, and Jacob Tice in “The Pillowman.”
Sean Neely, left, and Jacob Tice in “The Pillowman.” Dennis K Photography

“The Pillowman” at Tacoma Little Theatre is a dark and brutal comedy not suitable for children or for the squeamish, but brilliantly written by Martin McDonough and staged by director Blake York.

This is the first play set outside of Ireland by celebrated Irish playwright McDonough, author of the Academy Award-winning “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” and the plays “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”

The play's setting is a bleak police interrogation room in an unnamed totalitarian state (there are hints, including some character names, that it is somewhere in Eastern Europe).

Katurian (Jacob Tice) and his brother Michael (Sean Neely) are brought in for questioning about a string of gruesome murders of young children. The cops who question them in a gallows-humor spin on a good cop-bad cop routine are Tupolski (Andrew Fry) and Ariel (Christian Carvajal).

The brothers are suspected because many of Katurian’s short stories resemble the murders. Katurian is infuriaed when he finds out that Michael, whom he describes as childlike and "slow to get things,” is there and being kept by the police in another offstage interrogation room.

The four major characters are complex, multi-layered men, and each, with the possible exception of Michael, turns out to be quite different than he at first seems. The “good cop” is sly, manipulative and cold-hearted beneath his kindly exterior, and the “bad” cop, who is eager to torture and brutalize Katurian and Michael, turns out to have a heart after all.

McDonough’s writing is intricately and beautifully constructed and full of surprises. The story is both bleak and funny, with hints of Tom Stoppard and Franz Kafka, and even Grimm’s fairy tales, which are alluded to by Katurian. The jailhouse setting reminds me of Theater Artists Olympia’s production of George Orwell’s “1984.”

Tice is proving to be one of the South Sound’s most versatile actors, totally different in every role he takes on. As Katurian, he appears sponge-like, adapting his personality to suit the situation from moment to moment, and achingly vulnerable throughout. His character is never off stage.

Carvajal plays Ariel as an almost insane brute, bursting with constrained nervous energy. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch the way he smokes a cigarette (no actual smoke).

Fry plays Tupolski as one of the kindest and most normal of a group of bizarre characters, but audiences can sense his underlying sadistic streak.

Neely, a Seattle actor new to Tacoma stages, is stupendous as Michael. His physical quirks and hesitant manner of speech perfectly express the psyche of an abused person. Neely and Carvajal each auditioned only for their particular roles and no other, and each said Michael and Ariel, respectively, were dream roles.

Four other actors do not have speaking roles but are excellent. I'm not going to say anything about them because the scenes they're in should come as a surprise, and I don't want to spoil it. It’s a great bit of staging by Blake.

“The Pillowman” is not recommended for children under 13. There is as much profanity as in a Tarantino movie, and there is violence, blood and a gunshot. Yet despite all the gore, there is much humor and a heartfelt look into the complexities of human beings.

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The Pillowman

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday, through May 6.

Where: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma.

Tickets: $20-$24, pay-what-you-can performance May 3.

More information: 253-272-2281,