Yes, Virginia Wimberly Theatre, there is a play called “Ryan Landry’s ‘M.’ ” What’s more, your august stage is the setting for the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of it. Ryan Landry is, of course, known for spoofing musicals and melodramas in Gold Dust Orphans parodies like “Mary Poppers” and “Mildred Fierce” in the gritty underbelly of the gay Fenway nightclub Ramrod. Landry is not known for taking on works about serial killers of children — especially one as dark as Fritz Lang’s 1931 pulp parable. Then again, when people in “M” call the police and “confess” to the serial killer’s crimes so they can get a free trip to Berlin and their picture in the papers, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. “Ryan Landry’s ‘M’ ” proposes that laughter is the best medicine.
As is his wont, Landry has tweaked the original. A Producer has put up big bucks for a theatrical adaptation of “M.” Somehow, though, a Man (Paul Melendy) and a Woman (Ellen Adair) who weren’t part of the movie have got onstage and into the plot. And no one can find the Playwright to get an explanation. The Man and the Woman decide they need to find the killer, M (Karen MacDonald), and save him from the mob. But someone will have to save them from the Producer, who wants the play to hew to Lang’s original vision and would be happy to eradicate the interlopers. To that end, he hires the Pig (Gold Dust Orphan veteran Larry Coen) — that is, a critic — to restore order. While all this is going on, a dark shadow reminiscent of Peter Lorre (Lang’s M) haunts the stage, and a figure in a fedora and trenchcoat — apparently the janitor — keeps pushing a broom along the floor and sidling up to little girls.
All this takes place on a haunting set, by Jon Savage, that, with its tilting tenements, evokes the Expressionist ambiance of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” The Director, Fritz (David Drake), is the first to greet the audience. Dressed in a black beret and leather jacket, jodhpurs, and boots, and sporting a monocle and an appalling German accent, he admonishes us for fantasizing about murder and points out that two killings have taken place “while you were hanging out in the men’s room. Yes, ma’am, I am talking to you.” After a few more such pleasantries, we hear from put-upon washerwoman Olga Franksenkraut (Samantha Richert), who in a nasal whine complains that “we’ve been in the same costumes for 82 years” (the film is that old) and then yells at daughter Helga, “Ya li’l BRATwurst!”
Next up is the cuckoo clock from “M,” the one that tells Elsie’s mother her little girl is late coming home from school. (Elsie never arrives; she’s the film’s first victim.) This cuckoo clock has legs, since it’s played by Adair, and those legs elicit the appreciation of a smooth-talking audience member played by Melendy who winds up as a character onstage (though which one is never quite clear) and then an usher. Adair too keeps redefining her character, channeling both the Virgin Mary and Marlene Dietrich in “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.”
As always, Landry’s imagination runs riot, ranging, in the first half-hour alone, as far afield as King Kong, Lizzie Borden, Cole Porter, Eva Braun, and Dick Tracy. Later there’s a sly dig, via a Langston Hughes poem, at the Huntington’s previous production, “A Raisin in the Sun,” and Pig’s assistant, the militarily outfitted Schlitz (Laura Latreille), observes that “the sight lines are terrible” in the front row. Director Caitlin Lowans keeps the 90-minute show moving along; there are no longueurs. But “Ryan Landry’s ‘M’ ” is most effective when it plays off Fritz Lang’s “M” — a movie Landry has clearly taken to heart. Projections of footage from the film pop up on the back wall; the poster “Wer ist der Mörder?” (“Who is the murderer?”) is lovingly re-created, right down to the Gothic script; a searchlight scours the stage during the frantic final search for the killer. And the red pencil that Lorre uses to write to the newspapers is the intellectual key to the play’s last half hour.
But MacDonald is the emotional key to the whole show; she creates an uncanny resemblance to Lorre, and that justifies Landry’s outrageous flights of fancy. Pig, frustrated with both Director and Playwright, says he’s simply looking to “get back to giving the subscribers what they want, a show they can sleep through.” No danger anyone will sleep through “Ryan Landry’s ‘M.’ ”