Saturday, April 20, 2013

Can we all stop pretending about Ryan Landry now?

You did have to be a little cuckoo to believe the hype. Photo(s): T. Charles Erickson.

Okay - we've all sat through "Ryan Landry's M" now.  And we've all seen that the Huntington made a big bet, blew the bank on it, and gave Landry everything he wanted.

And we also know by now that the show is no good.

So - can we stop pretending Ryan Landry is a playwright?


I'm not sure how this whole thing got started - although I'd say old Louise Kennedy (remember her?) basically got the ball rolling. And in a way, I admit if I didn't have a personal dislike for this particular auteur, I could find something poignant in the whole build-up-and-bust cycle we've just witnessed.  Or at least, I could find something touching in Landry's own apparent awareness that he's out of his league and over his head at the Huntington; the guy actually turns his anxiety over being unable to come up with a real play into a central motif of - well, whatever the hell "Ryan Landry's M" is.

But first - the (by now ritual) full disclosure. Something like four years ago, when this blog was still young, I asked Landry's troupe, the Gold Dust Orphans, for press tickets - and was refused on the grounds that I was not "a legitimate reviewer."  I mentioned this on the blog.

First came a direct threat from Landry's own email account:

"Give me one more reason to react to your bullshit... just one ... and you'll sincerely wish you didn't."

Then came a barrage of abuse from other Orphans and their fans:

"I will find you and hurt you . . . We hope you get AIDS and die . . . YOU SUCK!!!! . . . what would your boss say if he knew about your blog . . . "

It went on and on - dozens of emails - climaxing with another missive from Landry himself that closed with - well, you can read it here.

Now I'm a big boy, and I've hardly spent the last few years looking over my shoulder, dreading the sight of a giant drag queen armed with a clog. But at the same time, pathetic as his outbursts may have been, I haven't forgotten what I'd learned about Ryan Landry  - so I was quite loathe to drag myself to this queen's big premiere.  It seemed like a lose/lose - I doubted M would be any good, but that probably meant setting off another series of flaming email attacks; and if it was good - well, it would have been pretty depressing having to write a rave for this jerk.

But the Huntington kept asking, people kept wondering if I'd write about it, it was obviously going to be an "event." So in the end I went (I admit I was mildly curious about it myself).

Fifteen minutes in, though, I was breathing a sigh of relief; I would be spared having to pen a positive notice, much less a rave! Even though, at first, "Ryan Landry's M" is a punchy, dirty little skit (albeit toned down from his usual fare). Which only reminded me that what Landry does best is write strings of gags. Which he drapes over existing scripts. The results are, in my opinion, hit-or-miss; but there's always at least one boffo moment in a Landry sketch. It helps that his design team provides witty stage business on the fly - and on the cheap, which is important in that it resonates with the anything-goes, improvised tone of the show as a whole (if you ask me, the guys on his production team are the real geniuses over at the Gold Dust Orphans, and the Huntington's glossier, more "professional" work in M feels wrong somehow).

It also helps, of course, that Landry suffers from sexual tunnel vision in an amusingly childish way (a typical Landry "play" is basically a kiddie show with dildos). And his audience is reliably in a let's-make-mudpies kind of mood, so the scene over at Machine (his habitual haunt) usually has a giddy vibe of mutually infantile re-inforcement.

Which is fun as far as it goes, and I know it gives the repressed, middle-aged reporters at the Globe a thrill, but again - there are only so many ways you can goose the usual suspects. When Landry's targets are wide ones - fatuous or self-serious, or in denial, or simply dishonest - then his tawdry punches land, the inflated icon is punctured, and the skits really sing.

Karen MacDonald as Peter Lorre, kind of.
But when it comes to Fritz Lang's classic M - well, M isn't fatuous, self-serious, in denial, or at all dishonest. There's no diva concealed in it, no sentimentality, no grandiosity - it's far more self-aware and cooler in its irony than anything Ryan Landry has ever written (or ever will). Indeed, Lang's vision of a tormented child-killer, and the cruelly amoral society that hunts him down, is one of the most devastating social critiques ever put to film. The movie already skewers rigid social and sexual norms; it already deflates moral sanctimony.  Basically Lang is way ahead of Landry, and in M he dryly undermines not only everything the Gold Dust Orphans attack, but also everything they are about.  Next to M, it's Landry who looks fatuous and in denial, which may be why his version of M tends to de-fang it, and sand down its subversive edge.  He actually tries to make M look bourgeois.

Lang's classic is also, just btw, one of the most innovative movies ever made, and although it certainly has its longeurs, much of its imagery (the child's balloon caught in power lines, the leitmotif of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," the tracking shots of the killer marked with the letter "M") remains indelible. Such masterstrokes are, of course, hard to parody - so generally Landry simply lifts them, in half-homage.

But there's a further problem - to Landry's usual audience (and the Huntington's, too), M is obscure. Its influence has been pervasive, but only cinephiles watch it now; its references are too deeply buried in the culture for Landry's techniques to reach. (Which may be why the stage design relies quite a bit on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and why the soundtrack borrows from Hitchcock.)

What all this means, in the end, is that for much of M, Ryan Landry is on his own. He has to write a play. I suppose he painted himself into this corner intentionally; he may have chosen M precisely because he sensed it would set him up for either triumph or disaster.

Well, what happened was disaster, although one alleviated by occasional laughs, as his skitmaster side sometimes leavens his own pretensions with a few raspberries. Landry fills stage time with all sorts of dated fourth-wall antics; he throws constant wrenches into Lang's action, or tosses in quotes from The Blue Angel (by now another obscurity) to slow things down; he conjures out of nowhere a screwball comedy couple (the capable Ellen Adair and Paul Melendy) to charm us with open-ended questions about what they're doing on stage anyhow (yet Landry wrings nothing from the culture clash he thinks he has set up). Or he just drags in good old Orphan alumnus Larry Coen, or new comrade-in-arms David Drake, both capable comedians, to work the crowd for awhile.

Through all this you can all but hear the clock ticking toward 90 minutes, when we know the whole debacle can end. But weirdly, there is a good, if half-baked, idea banging around in M. Landry seems to identify with the Lorre character (this only re-activates creepy ideas about gay people, if you ask me, but whatever), and so turns his child-killer into an auteur - indeed, into a playwright within the play, who can actually adjust the script at will.

Now this could have led somewhere interesting, I admit. We do wonder why the hunted criminal can't simply re-write himself a happy ending on the spot, of course - but we're willing to ignore such contradictions if the play can get at something about how this villain/victim might rationalize to himself his own triumph (or his own defeat). What do society's outlaws tell themselves about themselves if and when they can get away with their crimes? It's an intriguing theme.

Adair and Drake in The Blue M
But alas, Landry only uses his one good idea as a pretext for more dramatic delay and  obstruction. Karen MacDonald gives the role her all (it's actually her most intense work in some time) but she's investing herself in something that leads her nowhere. Don't worry, she sends herself to hell at the finale (remember what I said about the script being bourgeois), but her decision is barely dramatized, and how it actually maps to the rest of M remains a mystery.

Of course it's no mystery why the Huntington programmed this bomb - Landry comes with a built-in audience (indeed, before the bad reviews dropped, they'd added performances to the run).  No doubt the company hopes Landry could become a cash cow for them, à la Harvard's Donkey Show. But how about we all wait till he has actually written a play before we hand him over a theatre again?  Just a thought.

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