For four decades, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb produced such memorable Broadway musicals as Cabaret, Chicago, and The Scottsboro Boys (first produced after the 2004 death of Ebb). Now Kander is working with a new wordsmith: Greg Pierce, a 35-year-old playwright whose finely wrought two-hander Slowgirl opened the Lincoln Center Theater’s new upstairs stage last summer.
The cross-generational duo’s first collaboration, The Landing, is a modest evening of three one-acts for four performers playing at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre through Nov. 24. Except for Kander’s recognizably lush and hook-filled melodies, the show often seems like the work of a gifted apprentice who’s written a lot of short fiction (as Pierce apparently has). The three acts unfold like short stories — each even has an onstage narrator — though torn from very different books.
The evening opens with ”Andra,” about a preteen math whiz (Frankie Seratch, precocious without being cutesy) with a mostly away-on-business dad and an easily distracted mom. The lad winds up bonding with the cabinet maker (Paul Anthony Stewart) renovating the family kitchen over the subject of astronomy. Tonally, though, it’s all over the sky map, like John Cheever reimagined for children’s theater.
Then comes ”The Brick,” a farcical lark about a bored wife (Julia Murney) whose love of old noir films leads her to buy a brick from the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — which springs to life in the disruptive form of white-suited David Hyde Pierce (who is Greg Pierce’s uncle, by the way). This George Saunders-esque yarn yields some zippy Chicago-like tunes and the entire cast doing gangster-film impressions — including young Seratch, who tells his aunt, ”Shut your gin hole, ya floozy.” But it also seems rather twee.
By far the most successful piece is the last, ”The Landing,” the wistful story of a mysterious young boy (Seratch) who is newly adopted by two gay dads in Manhattan (Stewart and Pierce). Here, director Walter Bobbie is better able to integrate the script’s shifts in tone between the realistic and the whimsical. Not only does it have a twist worthy of O. Henry (or Rod Serling), but it has genuine heart. Plus, there’s a haunting new tune with the lilt of an old Irish folk song. It points to the direction that future Kander and Pierce projects might go. B?