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Ryan Landry Doesn’t Get Away With M(urder)

Larry Coen (second from right) is on the hunt for the murderer in "Ryan Landry's 'M.'  " Ellen Adair as "Marlene" is in the center.  (T. Charles Erickson)

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BOSTON – Ryan Landry, the head of Gold Dust Orphans, a theatrical troupe like no other, has become one of the city’s most welcome cultural icons. Think of Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen inhabiting one body. His gender-bending farces at Machine, outside of Fenway Park, have been embraced by high and low, gay and straight, the American Repertory Theater and the Huntington Theatre Company.

Huntington honcho Peter DuBois has been so impressed by Landry that he gave him a spot on this year’s schedule for “Ryan Landry’s ‘M.’ ‘’ It makes sense. Landry is not only a gifted comedian with a wild imagination but an excellent playwright. At his best he is as provocative as he is entertaining — “Who’s Afraid of the Virgin Mary?” manages to simultaneously pay tribute to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”; send the play up; and have thoughtful things to say about modern religion. “Death of a Saleslady” was as sad as it was funny.

Karen MacDonald as the murderer. (T. Charles Erickson)

Karen MacDonald as the murderer. (T. Charles Erickson)

It’s in that more serious vein that Landry takes on Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic, “M.” There’s very little gender-bending here, even though Karen MacDonald plays the Peter Lorre character, but there are other Landry trademarks — sight gags galore, many from the film; puns flying at you from every direction; smart scenic design (Jon Savage’s homage to German expressionism); irreverence about all things sexual; and, of course, puppets.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough. On the large proscenium stage (the BCA’s Wimberly Theatre, through April 28) all the above seem clever at best, flat at worst.

And that’s only the icing. It’s the cake, itself, that isn’t satisfactory. The story of “M” revolves around the hunt for a serial killer of children by both the police and the crooks of the underworld, who know the psycho is bad for business. Here the hunt is carried out by a Gable-Lombardish romantic couple (Paul Melendy, Ellen Adair) out of a Hollywood romance while the producer of the play (Larry Coen), who wanted a straight adaptation of the play, is outraged at the insertion of the couple and searches for the playwright to make things right.

All this becomes so circular that the “M” stands more for “meta” than it does for “murder.” Eventually the strands add up, but to little emotional or intellectual effect. The romantic couple, good as the actors are, never become more than a device that stands in opposition to the film, which is more or less how Landry says he planned it. Adair skillfully morphs from the film’s cuckoo clock to Marlene Dietrich. But, again, to what effect?

The best part of the play, like the movie, is the speech toward the end by the murderer. In the film, Lorre confronts the criminals with what he calls their greater guilt, because they can control their impulses and he can’t. Landry goes in a different direction with MacDonald, which I won’t give away, but the life of the tortured artist/writer enters into it.

It’s also a little too meta, but at least it’s an effective penultimate scene. It’s where Landry finally finds his focus and his voice, and it’s the first time he really makes use of MacDonald’s acting abilities. If only the buildup had lived up to the punchline.

Peter DuBois talks about Ryan Landry’s “Mildred Fierce” on Radio Boston.

DuBois on “Ryan Landry’s ‘M.’ ”