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.”
“I wanted to make Peter proud. He’s been so kind to me,” Landry said. “And I wanted to make myself proud.”
Blending different styles
DuBois hopes “M” will bring some of the Orphans’ audience to the Huntington, and introduce his own theater’s regulars to what he called Landry’s “wild aesthetic and unbridled lunacy.” Landry, likewise, would be happy if some of the Huntington crowd might now dare to visit Machine to see the Orphans’ “Pornocchio,” opening April 26.
First, though, they’ve got to get “M” up, which means blending two very different styles of working. “Ryan definitely shakes things up,” DuBois said. “It’s pretty great, actually.”
In Landry’s usual way of working, on an Orphans show, a lot of people have input, but Landry is the decider and can change things in an instant. It’s not so simple with “M.”
The Huntington “is a really big ship and it’s hard to turn quickly,” said “M” director Caitlin Lowans. The collaboration, she said, “is going really well, which is not to say it’s not totally weird and strange and stretchy for everyone.”
Landry needs to see things on their feet, said Lowans, who directed his play “Psyched,” starring Coen as Norman Bates’s mother, for the Huntington as part of the Emerging America festival in 2011. “He’s very honest,” she said, “and if he thinks something doesn’t work, he’s not like, ‘Oh well, you know, maybe try that for a little while.’ He’s like, ‘Nope! Not gonna work!’ ”
“I’m a loudmouth, kind of a bulldozer in rehearsal,” Landry said. “She just sits there patiently, and then she takes charge, and I have to shut my mouth. She knows how to shut me up. She’s great at what she does, and we’re great together, actually.”
The script for “M” has been in progress since last spring, including two weeklong workshops, eliciting from Landry a painstaking attention to detail that Orphans scripts don’t usually get. “Did you ever have the crabs, and you have to use that comb that they give you?” he asked with a smile. “It’s like using one of those combs, searching, searching. Are there any mistakes? Searching. Are there any problems? Timeline issues?”
Lisa Timmel, the Huntington’s director of new work, has been giving Landry notes on drafts of various plays since the beginning of his fellowship. She’s become attuned to his particular way of crafting a script.
“You have to go for the ride with him and see where you are at the end of the ride before you bring in your questions,” Timmel said. “We really do trust his vision, and we really do try to give him as much rope as possible.”
Landry, who has made an aesthetic virtue of the Orphans’ low budgets, noted that design meetings with his own company usually consist of him and one or two other people. “Here they tell me there’s a design meeting, and I open the door, and there are, like, 75 people there!” He burst into laughter.
He is a self-described “Nazi in rehearsal” with the Orphans, while at the Huntington he’s had to adjust his style to Actors’ Equity Association rules about niceties such as scheduled breaks. But he has discovered there are virtues in that kind of professionalism as well.
“When you come in here, everything is getting done and no one is complaining,” he said. “Believe me, with the Orphans it can be like being the mother of a dysfunctional, horribly spoiled group. . . . ‘Liza’s not getting along with Johnny today because Johnny ate his manicotti that he was saving in the refrigerator.’ ”
Landry has been making his opinions known in areas like marketing, too. While it’s not unusual for a playwright to offer an opinion on such topics, Huntington staffers say Landry’s involvement has gone way beyond the norm.
“Now he says he’s going to be selling T-shirts in the lobby dressed as a red balloon. It’s just stuff we don’t normally have happen in the theater,” DuBois said, sounding gleeful.
As a playwright, performer, and producer, Landry has built an entire career on doing things his own way. And, like any other career, it has not come without some resentments.
“When you’ve ridden in the back of the bus as long as I have and don’t feel part of the ‘professional’ theater scene in Boston because most people think of you as a drag queen and think it’s just a glorified drag show and you’re not doing ‘real’ theater and all those things I’ve had to deal with for a lot of years, you start losing a lot of faith in the system,” Landry said. “But this feels like it does validate my work, or whatever.”
Landry said he feels “honored” by all the hours and dollars the Huntington is devoting to realizing onstage the vision in his head.
“They’re serious, so I have to be serious,” he said.
But not too serious.
The play is “a tiptoe through my mind,” he said. “And some people may think that my mind is perverse and not worth tiptoeing through. And some people might be delighted. It’s certainly different — you have to admit that.”
Joel Brown can be reached at