Darkness and Disappointment Lurk Beneath The Landing's All's-Well Veneer
There are at least two ways to see The Landing. You can go into the theater like the terribly boring adult that you probably are, sit down and turn off your cell phone and watch the show, while the back of your brain runs through its usual glum subroutines of rent and work and career and all the other temporal, tedious bullshit that you once promised you'd never be enslaved to. If you do that, you may enjoy yourself. You may be charmed, amused, entertained. Or you may be bored. Regardless, you'll be doing it wrong.
The Landing is an often-silly, 100-minute, no-intermission, brand-new triptych musical at the Vineyard Theatre, directed by Walter Bobbie, and it concerns those big, important, corny things you've got to forget about in order to fret seriously about rent, work, and career. It is about, among other things, adolescent loneliness, and the child who suffers for want of a friend. It's about the terrible ennui of a certain kind of middle-aged housewife, and the tragicomic derangement it can bring. It's about the desire for a child, for a small and soft thing to care for. And it's about death. The Landing is about these things in as unfashionable a way as a play can be about them, uncynical and wide-eyed. If you saw it when you were 14, you'd think it was profound. And you (or maybe I mean "I") have to unburden yourself of a lot of dumb baggage to realize you'd be right.
Go the right way, right away. Go unburdened. Here's what you'll see.
These are three unconnected musical vignettes, with music by John Kander and words and book by Greg Pierce. The music sounds nothing like Kander's best-known works, Chicago and Cabaret. The Landing is full of major chords doing poppy, accessible things in strange, sometimes almost arrhythmic ways, and the words articulate with the music in fun, counterintuitive syncopations that make me think of Into the Woods.
The cast, four souls playing a whole bunch of characters throughout the show, are David Hyde Pierce (whom you know from Frasier or Curtains or Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), Julia Murney (Wicked), Paul Anthony Stewart (Guiding Light, Cyrano), and 14-year-old Frankie Seratch. The grown-ups all do excellent work (especially Pierce, and especially when he plays an anthropomorphized brick), but Seratch is the show's center.
The first part of the triptych, a touching little playlet called "Andra," finds Seratch playing a lonesome, bullied, gifted boy who befriends a carpenter (Stewart) who's redoing his family's kitchen. Kander's music is almost nursery-rhymish here, and the musical cues suggest we're in for major schmaltz. But no. It is the case that the carpenter introduces the lonesome boy to astronomy, and there are a few lovely, schmaltzy moments when it seems the boy has found a true and lasting friend. But these happy expectations are unmet. Neither the music nor the story they accompany are as simple, or as sweet, as they first seem.
The second part of the triptych, "The Brick," is slapstick. Here, Seratch is a kid spending the summer with a strange uncle (Stewart) and auntie (Murney) in Connecticut. Both grown-ups chomp through the scenery — Murney and Stewart have devastating comic timing, and seem to be having a marvelous time — and Pierce, as the brick, is the funniest thing in Union Square. But the story is really about what the kid sees and hears during his strange summer: the secret desperation of grown-ups, how they can be squeezed by hidden pressures and warped by longing and become dangerously (though hilariously) unhinged.
The third part of the triptych, "The Landing," is narrated matter-of-factly by Murney and pictures Stewart and Pierce as a gay couple who have, after many months of hacking through red tape, adopted a child. Seratch plays the child as perfect and precocious, apparently (suspiciously?) undamaged by his orphanhood. There are a few long moments in "The Landing" when the men's happiness is made so palpable, both by the actors and the tentative instrumental music Kander has sprinkled across the playlet, that it's physically unbearable. Men and women in the audience well up and spill. But again, things aren't as lovely as they seem. The story soon takes a bizarre, metaphysical detour that in any other show would be corny. There is death and magic in the final scenes of "The Landing," and any hint of histrionics would turn it into a melodrama or farce. I credit Seratch's still, restrained performance with making the incredible credible, and softly devastating.
Then the thing's over, and a subtle alchemy has occurred. A show that seemed to be about friendship, summertime, and family has transformed into a show about loss, disappointment, and death, and it's done it without any false notes, without losing its good humor or big heart. That's a fine way for a show to behave. Or a person. It takes a lot of wisdom.
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