At 6-foot-2, wearing a bright pink shirt and red sneakers, Ryan Landry was hard to miss as he led a whirlwind backstage tour at the Huntington Theatre Company on a recent Friday. Preparations were underway all around for his play, “Ryan Landry’s ‘M,’ ” beginning performances Friday at the Boston Center for the Arts, and Landry spread cheer wherever he went.
In the scene shop, four women painted lollipops and candies on a large gingerbread house. “Geniuses,” he called them, and they laughed. He was already moving on to the prop shop, where the lone craftsman on hand seemed pleased, if slightly surprised, by the degree of Landry’s enthusiasm for the puppets and the “amazing” 20-foot-long giant pencil.
Next he headed for the costume shop, but took a wrong turn and had to double back. “I think it’s this way,” he said, pushing through two imposing fire doors.
In a few steps, he was on the deserted stage of the cavernous Boston University Theatre, crossing the set for the Huntington’s revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” as if he belonged there.
Issues of belonging are, in a way, at the heart of Landry’s collaboration with the Huntington. By bringing the playwright on board for “M,” the theater and its artistic director, Peter DuBois, are crossing boundaries of theatrical caste.
Since the mid-1990s, the 52-year-old Landry has written and produced dozens of comically raunchy show-biz parodies with his Boston-based troupe, the Gold Dust Orphans . “Pussy on the House,” for example, was the Orphans’ take on “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and the company’s recent “Mildred Fierce” was, of course, their “Mildred Pierce.” Performing at the Fenway gay club Machine, on skimpy budgets and with key players in drag, the Orphans have attracted a devout audience and critical acclaim.
Still, the Huntington is a major, mainstream regional theater, and a far more prominent stage than Landry is accustomed to having. The sleek, contemporary space where “M” will be performed, the 370-seat Wimberly Theatre at the BCA, looks absolutely nothing like the gritty basement at Machine.
“This is the biggest thing that ever happened to me, besides getting married,” said Landry, whose husband, Scott Martino, a designer and performer with the Orphans, designed the costumes for “M.”
Landry’s “M” is “inspired by” Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller of the same name, starring Peter Lorre as the homicidal Hans Beckert, whose purchase of a balloon for one young victim is key to his undoing. Landry’s play features the same ominous shadows, mysterious child killer, and vengeful citizenry. But this is also Landry’s surreal and sometimes anachronistic world, where, as the script puts it, “life is cheap and parking is 45 dollars,” where a cuckoo clock turns out to be an ingenue, and where the fourth wall is not just broken but trampled and mocked.
But this isn’t simply another Orphans-style parody. The playwright has tried to up his game.
“I could have done something here that would be a guaranteed hit,” Landry said. “What I did instead was I took risks, and I’m most proud of taking those risks. But now I’m scared to death of what people will think. At the same time, I don’t give a [expletive] what people think.”
The cast of nine features Ellen Adair as The Woman, Paul Melendy as The Man, and David Drake and Orphans veteran Larry Coen in multiple roles. Karen MacDonald plays the Lorre part. (“Women wearing men’s clothes, that’s not really drag anymore, is it?” Landry said. “It’s just style.”)
The playwright’s first challenge with “M” was turning a thriller about a serial killer of children into a comedy, which meant introducing a romance that’s nowhere in the movie.
“Ryan really dug deep with the material,” DuBois said. “On one level, it’s a satire on horror as a genre. But then there’s this deeper exploration of mental illness and just the desire to be alive, the hunger for life.
“Ryan’s work is always very funny and very irreverent,” he added, “but there’s this huge heart, and I feel that is very apparent in ‘M’ now.”
DuBois said he’s wanted this collaboration to happen since shortly after he arrived from New York to take his job in 2008 and saw Landry perform in Provincetown, emceeing “Showgirls,” then caught the Orphans at Machine.
“I just remember laughing so hard and being so excited that this guy was in Boston,” DuBois said.
The following year, Landry was named to the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program. In assembling its seasons, the theater has plucked several playwrights from the fellows’ ranks, among them Lydia R. Diamond, Kirsten Greenidge, and Melinda Lopez. Offered his own chance for a Huntington production, Landry was determined not to “take the easy way out.” Continued...