I’m not entirely sure how to feel about The Landing, the new musical from the May-December creative team of young playwright Greg Pierce and veteran composer John Kander (Cabaret, Chicago, and many more), currently being staged at The Vineyard Theatre (directed by Walter Bobbie).
On the one hand, I’m kind of a fan of the chamber musical as a genre, and I get exhausted these days by the sheer exertion on view in Broadway musicals. (I seem to be the only person I know to have felt assaulted rather than exhilarated by Matilda.) And I also like to encourage experiments with storytelling. So I started out predisposed to like the show.
And I wound up liking it, but only after almost giving up on it. In the end, I decided it’s a piece with potential, but that still needs work. So I’ll write about it in the spirit of constructive criticism, on the assumption that Kander and Pierce similarly consider it something of a work in progress.
The show is composed of three short one-act musicals, each about half an hour. Each segment is a completely independent story, and each has a different tone and style, but there’s a common cast and a common theme: that the apparent cures for your discontent may in fact be your doom.
From where I was sitting, the first segment, “Andra,” is the weakest of the three, narratively and musically. The protagonist is a young boy, Noah (Frankie Seratch), extremely bright and somewhat sensitive, with no friends, a distant father (he’s never on stage, in fact), and a cold, brittle mother (Julia Murney). When his mother hires a carpenter (Paul Anthony Stewart) to redo the kitchen, Noah gloms onto him as a surrogate father figure, and the two begin to bond. And then Noah, using the telescope that the carpenter gave him, learns that someone else has been bonding with the good looking interloper, in a rather different fashion. The discovery ruins any possibility of a relationship between Noah and the man. And then the job is done, and the man leaves. The playlet ends on mother and son, wordlessly united in wistful longing for what they just lost.
I say the segment has a narrative problem first and foremost because of the way it’s told – it relies heavily on narration (the narrator is played by David Hyde Pierce), and that narration felt more like a short story than it did like something integral to a play. If you’re going to talk to the audience, I think it’s important to acknowledge that you are doing that, and this narrator wasn’t written that way. As a consequence, he distanced me from the action rather than drawing me in, and I kept wondering whether he was actually necessary. Then, the relationship between music and narrative felt very muddy – the piece wasn’t all sung, but neither was it punctuated by emotional moments that required song; it just wasn’t clear to me what the music was doing (plus there were no memorable tunes). Ultimately, the story felt to me very second-hand, something I’d seen before many times, and told better.
A lot of critics have called out the second segment, “The Brick,” for being the big problem with the show, but I don’t agree. There’s a huge swerve in tone from the autumn leaves of “Andra,” to the neon expressionist sketch comedy of “The Brick,” but I found that to be all to the good. In this segment, the narrator is played by Seratch, but he’s also a character integral to the story: a boy who’s visiting his aunt (Murney) and uncle (Stewart) for the summer. And he’s clearly talking to us – he has a relationship with the audience. So the narrator works.
And what about Hyde Pierce – who does he play? He plays the title character: a brick – supposedly taken from the wall of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. You see, the aunt is crazy for old gangster films, and the brick (which she orders by dialing 1-800-4ABRICK) is the mechanism for her nocturnal Don Quixotefication, the Clyde to her incipient Bonnie.
The segment does have problems, the primary one being a need to explain too much. (The nephew at one point goes on line and learns from a website that the brick is cursed. Did the playwright really think we didn’t already know that?) But the brick is a hoot, his duet with the aunt is lovely – actually, every song the brick sings is great. And he’s not a knowing, calculating force of evil; he’s not really diabolical at all – he’s just naturally destructive. (Pretty much all he sings about is committing acts of horrific and senseless violence, and he warms to the aunt when he sees she has a taste for same.) The problems the segment has are all fixable, and are worth fixing, because the cornerstone is solid.
The last segment, “The Landing,” is, by general acclaim, the best – best songs, best characters, eeriest, most intriguing story. The narrator this time is the social worker who has helped a gay couple adopt an orphan boy – she’s part of the action, but on the periphery, and her narration is minimal. The couple’s relationship is briefly but effectively sketched in (and the lucite set realistically evokes their neat-as-a-pin apartment). One of them (Stewart) always wanted a child; the other (Hyde Pierce) has finally given in. And when he arrives, he’s perfect.
Too perfect. There’s something obviously wrong about him from the outset – he’s too well-behaved, too instantly comfortable, too easy to please. The adoptive couple don’t actually have to do any parenting – the kid goes to school, paints, plays piano (a Sloop-John-B-esque tune that starts off seeming sweet but gets more sinister as the segment goes on), and organizes an outing with Stewart to a mysterious place called The Landing.
Hyde Pierce senses something’s off about the kid, and confronts his partner; Stewart, convinced he’s just jealous of an interloper into the family, reacts angrily. He talks to the social worker – and admits that, yes, he is jealous. He wants his lover all to himself. He thought he was enough. And then he confronts his adopted son, and learns that he’s right: the boy’s not at all what he seemed. And Stewart won’t be coming back from the Landing, whatever it is. Hyde Pierce has the chance to sing a plaintive goodbye, and then he’s left alone.
It is indeed the best segment – but I admit, I have no idea what it “means.” Like “The Brick,” “The Landing” isn’t really cautionary tale – it’s not warning audiences not to adopt children, anymore than “The Brick” is warning audiences not to watch gangster movies (or order trinkets from 1-800 numbers). The message, if there is one, is not one that is typical for an American musical. It would seem to be simply that this kind of thing can happen. Sometimes, almost by accident, you discover your dark side – a taste for violence, perhaps – and that knowledge destroys you. Sometimes, with all the proper planning, you do something – like adopting a child – that looks like growth, like completion – and that destroys you, or someone you love.
The surface sweetness of the music may keep of from feeling it, but that’s a pretty hard place to land.
The Landing runs at the Vineyard Theatre through November 24th.