One of the primary benefits of an evening of one-act plays is that if a play isn't really doing it for you, at least you know it will be mercifully short. I was thankful for that reassuring knowledge through the first two of three one-act musicals in The Landing, a world premiere collaboration between composer John Kander (Chicago) and lyricist Greg Pierce (Slowgirl) at The Vineyard Theatre. The pieces could easily stand alone, although they are arguably (it's a stretch) thematically linked. If you make it through the first two snooze fests, you'll get the pleasure of seeing the third, and title-named piece, "The Landing." That's when this show becomes worth it. I left the theater wishing I could have spent more of my 100 minutes with the family in the fascinating and heartrending third act. I also thought that I should really spend more time with my real family. As "The Landing" reminds us, we only have a limited amount of time together.
The first piece, "Andra," is about Ben (Paul Anthony Stewart), a contractor who is remodeling the kitchen of a fancy house belonging to a wealthy New England family. Eleven-year-old Noah (Frankie Seratch) wants to grow up to be just like his (conspicuously absent) financier dad. Noah and Ben bond over the constellation Andromeda (Andra, for short), and it looks like Ben might be the father figure Noah is lacking. Could Ben also be the hunky working-class man whom Mom (Julia Murney) is lacking? Of course, all things come to an end, especially innocence.
The second musical, "The Brick," is the most interminable of the three. Twelve-year-old Darius (Seratch) is staying with his Aunt Charl (Murney) and Uncle Cliff (Stewart) in Connecticut for the summer. Charl and Darius like to stay up late watching gangster movies. One night, Charl buys a $100 brick (allegedly from the wall where the St. Valentine's Day Massacre took place) after watching an advertisement on TV. The Brick (David Hyde Pierce) arrives wearing a pinstripe suit, ready to whisk Aunt Charl away and make her a mob wife. Together they embark on a crime spree through greater Connecticut, like a delusional middle-aged Bonnie and Clyde. This piece feels like it was written for one of those playwriting festivals in which a team of composers has to devise a musical in 24 hours. And it's not even very funny for all its personified masonry and desperate housewifery.
Your patience will be rewarded, however, in the haunting and unforgettable third act: "The Landing." Denny (Stewart) and Jake (Pierce) are a couple living on the Upper West Side. They've just taken in a foster child, Collin (Seratch), who by all accounts seems to be the perfect son. He is also unusually well-traveled for a 12-year-old orphan. What begins as a sweet and sensitive look at adoptive parenthood becomes something much bigger. "The Landing" looks at issues of life, death, love, and regret. It definitely deserves its own separate show.
Even the quality of the lyrics and music are better in this final act. Jake's last song, "Thanks for That," is by far the best and most memorable and Pierce delivers it with understated tenderness: "When I saw you, you were sitting on the aisle/You gave me a nod and God it made me smile/Thanks for that," he sings to Denny, remembering the little yet unforgettable moments they've had together. Tissues, please.
John Lee Beatty keeps the set minimal and utilitarian, as such an evening requires. The translucent contempo furniture in the third segment definitely made me laugh, though (so UWS gay). As did the leopard-print dress (costumes by Michael Krass) donned in the second act by Paul Anthony Stewart when he plays cribbage-playing neighbor-lady Margery. (It was the funniest thing about "The Brick.") Director Walter Bobbie leads this four-person cast to committed and boundlessly energetic performances, but that is not enough to make for a satisfying evening. Ultimately, the base material has to be good.
The Landing is an excellent production of a sloppily written musical. The actors do their best with this often vapid material, but one can sense that they (like the rest of us) are only sticking around for the final story. I sincerely hope to see this last piece again in an expanded stand-alone production.