The comfort level afforded by a well-endowed arts institution is not always propitious. Case in point: Boston's prestigious Huntington Theatre Company extended an invitation to local playwright/provocateur Ryan Landry — creator of a string of brilliant, low-budget spoofs at the Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts (aka the grungy, beer-suffused basement of the gay club Machine) — to mount a full-scale, aboveground production.
The result, Ryan Landry's "M" — riffing off Fritz Lang's 1931 filmic masterpiece about the hunt for a serial child killer — doesn't represent the playwright at his best. Borrowing a page from Pirandello, Landry has opted for a metatheatrical treatment. Instead of simply satirizing the original (granted, the subject of child murder is not exactly a barrel of laughs), he decides to lighten the mood by adding a gratuitous gloss. Two extraneous characters interfere with the central story line by enacting a '30s-style romantic comedy. This pairing of dark and light material is not a match made in heaven. The result is neither illuminating nor amusing, and the overworked conceit of actors hijacking a play becomes an exercise in authorial noodling.
No slight to the performers involved. Ellen Adair is appealing as the actress who starts out impersonating a cuckoo clock (Landry's visuals are always inspired, especially the costumes conceived by his partner, Scott Martino). Having attracted the attention of an intrusive audience member who steps into the action under the moniker "Mr. Man" (Paul Melendy), Adair's "Woman" enjoys a brief gig playing Marlene Dietrich (in a chorus line consisting of paper cutouts), has a child (a future victim) in no time flat, and takes on the task of tracking down the killer.
The juiciest roles, a whole handful, go to longtime Landry collaborator Larry Coen, whose various incarnations include a hideous sausage-curled little girl (a "BRATwurst"), a Mr. Monopoly-clone producer, and ultimately, a bossy theater critic by the name of Pig (subtle, Landry is not). The chameleonic David Drake primarily plays a Stroheim-like director (the silver lamé storm-trooper outfit provided by Martino could work for straight-out clubbing), but he also kicks in as a cabaret cutie.
In a questionable coup of cross-gender casting, Landry has American Repertory Theater veteran Karen MacDonald play the compulsive Mörder, or murderer, for which the M stands. Several decades older than Peter Lorre was when he assayed the role, she gets the furtive body language right. However, her voice, when she works up to an impassioned cri de coeur toward the end of Landry's version, is too shrieky to inspire much empathy.
In overlooking Lang's central plot twist, in which criminals band together to finger the culprit (out of self-interest), Landry seems to bypass the richest lode for satire. It's as if he loses interest in the story, opting instead to enter a wormhole of self-examination. One insistent theme keeps pushing its way to the forefront: What is the role of the playwright? Especially a playwright given unlimited power?
Landry's best work — such as the Katrina-tinged A T-Stop Named Denial and the genuinely heartbreaking Death of a Saleslady — has stemmed from a deep appreciation of the source material. He seems alienated here, and that lack of connection likely extends to the audience.