Jeffrey Jones, who plays the central figure in Ion Theatre Company's current The Pillowman, has a curious take on one particular word of dialogue. He might not even realize he's doing this, but he pronounces “pillow” sort of like “pellow” or “pella”—and as a character affectation, the effect is actually pretty cool. It doesn't carry the impact of the show's major story points, like brutal police tactics or a girl's survival of a crucifixion and burial, but it's one of those subtle little tics that somehow help make this production the very black comedy it is.
If anything, a few such nuances are underdone in this San Diego premiere. Black comedy, after all, succeeds best when it's at its most grotesque, and this show doesn't always exploit its flashbacks accordingly. Beyond that, director Claudio Raygoza accommodates Irish playwright Martin McDonagh very well indeed—he weaves the present and the past starkly, confidently and without pretense. If black comedy's ominous nature is your kind of performance art, then this piece, with certain generalized exceptions, is your kind of show.
That's especially true if you get off on the beating and shooting deaths of short-story writers at the hands of the cops. Katurian (Jones) is such a victim, hounded and tortured by two totalitarian lawmen when some of his stories are found to characterize a series of bizarre murders (one describes a cadre of tiny beings icing a girl who gave her dad some razor-laced apples; in reality, a child has just died after a force-feeding of lethal fruit). The back-story's the kicker—Katurian's slow-witted brother Michal (John Polak), brutalized as a boy by his parents, thinks Katurian's tales are primers on how to survive his fate. He acts on them, and the murder mysteries thus unravel. Before the police seal Katurian's destiny, Katurian will just as surely seal Michal's.
The two acts feel like they run longer than they actually do, chiefly because McDonagh and Raygoza get so much done in not much time. Just as the playwright doesn't waste words in developing his people, Raygoza has quick-tongued good cop Tupolski (Matt Scott) and boiling-mad bad cop Ariel (Jamie Effros) all over the hapless Katurian, relentlessly and at a moment's notice. Effros is excellent when Ariel is forced to face his own demons, and Scott assumes Tupolski's ruthlessness well, although the actor's voice is a tad too cultivated against the prickly dialogue. Raygoza and Scott co-designed the sets, each of which paints detailed portraits of both McDonagh's realities.
You (or at least I) almost want the flashbacks to read even grislier at times (it's one thing to watch the charade of the kid nailed to the cross; amid the violence visited on Katurian, it would have been far more complementary to actually see her bleed out). But that's a matter of taste, not interpretation—and as for the latter, Raygoza is a most eloquent spokesman for the playwright. The Pillowman is a darkly funny tale, rich in two-fisted dialogue and technical competence, staged by a company too hip and ornery to die. This review is based on the performance of Jan. 20. The Pillowman runs through Feb. 16 at The Lab, The Academy of Performing Arts, 4580-B Alvarado Canyon Road, Mission Valley. $10-$29.50; call about discounts. 619-374-6894 or www.iontheatre.com.