Looking For The Next Frontier: Ryan Landry's Playwriting Career

How did Ryan Landry — the playwright-performer-impresario famous for irreverent takes on the classics — end up onstage at the Huntington — an established regional theatre whose interpretations of the classics lean toward the reverent? The pairing, unlikely as it is dynamic, has its roots in a combination of Landry’s own constantly evolving aesthetic and the local focus of the Huntington’s new work activities.

Across his decades-long career, Landry has constantly pushed himself as a writer. His earliest writings were sketches for nightclubs when he worked as a promoter. The first piece he recalls was a short work called “Here Lies Lucy.” “The ghost of Lucille Ball came back from the grave as a talking skull,” Landry tells. “Lucy wanted to get into the Clarks Elementary School production of Hamlet because Tallulah Bankhead was in it.” After acting in another company’s lackluster production, Landry dared himself to write his own full- length plays, often with a similar pop-culture focus — How Mrs. Grinchley Swiped Christmas, Charlie’s Angels, The Ebonic Woman. Landry’s company the Gold Dust Orphans became one of the most successful theatre companies in Boston, regularly selling out whatever space they performed in – from the small converted screening room where the company started to their current longtime home in the basement of the Fenway nightclub Machine.

The Gold Dust Orphans' Phantom Of The Oprah

As the Gold Dust Orphans became more established, Landry looked for new challenges for himself as a writer. “I started loving the plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller,” Landry says. “I’d been putting pop culture things through the filter of my brain, but now I wanted to tackle these beautiful plays and give them a different take. Who’s to say that Arthur Miller is any different than I Dream of Jeannie?” Productions like The Plexiglass Menagerie, Who’s Afraid of the Virgin Mary?, and Death of a Saleslady were major turning points for Landry, as he developed his craft and intermingled his trademark comedy with increasingly dark and serious themes. “I remember how men and women sobbed in the audience during Saleslady,” Landry says. “I was so happy to hear them crying.”

Landry became a Huntington Playwriting Fellow in 2008 (one of Peter DuBois’ first invitations to the program when he arrived as artistic director), and speculation about a potential collaboration quickly began. When Landry revived his daringly cinematic riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, reporter Joel Brown wrote in The Boston Globe, “It’s boggling to imagine what the cheerfully brazen theatrical mind behind The Gulls could do with a big stage and the resources of a company like the Huntington.”

Jonathan Popp and Larry Coen in Psyched

DuBois agreed. The Huntington/Orphans first collaboration was a one-day-only production of Landry’s Psyched, a parodic prequel to Psycho from the perspective of Norman Bates’ mother, performed in 2012. After Psyched, DuBois asked Landry what else he was working on, hoping to find a next project to mount together, and Landry replied, almost reflexively, that he wanted to do an adaptation of Fritz Lang’s M with Boston actress Karen MacDonald in the Peter Lorre role. “I said what I thought would be the most far-fetched thing I could suggest, but Peter thought it was a good idea,” Landry says. Landry’s new frontier has been marrying his irreverent brand of comedy to the most serious of topics. “With M, I knew I was dealing with child murder. I can’t make fun of it, nor do I think it’s funny,” Landry says. “M is the furthest I’ve traveled outside the original in any of my adaptations.”

— Charles Haugland

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