Ryan as Agnes
The very thought of Ryan Landry doing The Twilight Zone is enough to bring a smile to the face. The iconic supernaturalism of the TV show that ran from 1959 to 1964 is perfect for Halloween — and Rod Serling as a satirical target is a man for all seasons. And there’s every reason to keep smiling as three classic episodes are sent up with good cheer and theatrical precision.
But wait — good cheer and theatrical precision? Admirable qualities, certainly, but when it comes to Landry, one hopes for other attributes as well: smart satire, inspired silliness, and an ability to make the jaw drop as well as tickle the funny bone.
Although almost everything about Live on Stage! The Twilight Zone (at Machine through November 11) hits the right Gold Dust Orphan notes, almost everything about it should be ratcheted up a notch. (In the case of Billy Hough’s bland impersonation of Serling, several notches.) Take Landry as Agnes Moorehead in “The Invaders,” an eerie semi-silent episode from the series’s second season in which a bedraggled farmwoman is beset by tiny visitors from another planet. Landry has a hoot rolling around on the floor fighting with the aliens and grunting in bewilderment. But as funny as it is, there’s nothing particularly surprising about it. In fact, like last season’s Death of a Saleslady , Twilight Zone is notable for how close it sticks to the original. “Living Doll” re-creates the episode in which Telly Savalas (here a very effective Larry Coen) tries to do in his daughter’s doll, Talky Tina, only to find out he’s messing with nobody’s plaything. Olive Another is pitch-perfect as Elaine Straighter, wife of Coen’s Eric Straiter. (I assume that’s a neat little joke, not a typo in the program.)
The dirty little secret about The Twilight Zone is that Serling was the show’s worst writer. The most satisfying episodes were written by Richard Matheson (“The Invaders”) or Charles Beaumont (who wrote “Living Doll” with Jerry Sohl). Serling never met an idea he couldn’t bludgeon to death. In “Eye of the Beholder,” a woman whose face is in bandages waits nervously to see whether the latest operation is a success. Doctors and nurses come and go, but all we see are shadows and profiles. It doesn’t take a Harold Bloom to see where this is going, but Serling inserts a Big Brother figure into the proceedings to blather on about the joys of conformity.
Perhaps that’s why the Orphans have a ball hiding their faces by searching for things in pocketbooks and combing their hair over their features. It’s all heading for the enjoyable punch line. Even here, though, there’s nothing you can’t see coming.
One thing that doesn’t need improving is the stagecraft. Directors Coen and James P. Byrne (who also did the sets) and costume designer Scott Martino make the basement of Machine, a/k/a the Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts, even more surreal than usual in evoking Serling’s bizarre but parallel universe. Landry and company obviously relish that world. They just need to work — and play — in it a little harder.