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Three Houses

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 20, 2024

J.D. Mollison, Margo Seibert, and Mia Pak
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
Just as experiences of the pandemic are gradually subsiding into the recesses of our collective memories, along comes Dave Malloy's latest work, Three Houses, to remind audiences of the feelings of loneliness, the unrelenting sense of isolation, and the existential terrors associated with the lockdown. The musical, now playing at New York's Signature Theatre and for which Malloy supplied the music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations, is notably ambitious, often unwieldy, and periodically sublime. It also draws from the most unlikely of sources: "The Three Little Pigs." Make no mistake, though, this post-pandemic musical may have its share of whimsical puppets and fairy-tale magic, but it is not kids' stuff by any means.

Set in a rather seedy, softly lit, but magical cocktail bar (designed by dots with the playful scenic surprises of a children's pop-up book and enhanced by Christopher Bowser's bewitching lighting), Three Houses takes place during an open-mic night. There are three performers on the program, and each offers an account of domestic reclusiveness in the first months of the pandemic. The emcee and bartender overseeing the event is the mysterious Wolf (Scott Stangland).

First up is Susan (Margo Seibert), who recounts her recollections of moving to her deceased grandmother's gigantic ranch house in Latvia after having separated from her husband. The ghosts of her dead grandparents (Ching Valdes-Aran and Henry Stram) force Susan to confront her internalized demons and her own culpability in her failed marriage.

Sadie (Mia Pak) follows, and like Susan, she had just ended a relationship. With the onset of the pandemic, she moved into her aunt's adobe home near Taos, New Mexico. With her aunt in Korea and her ex-girlfriend nonresponsive, Sadie puts all her attention into a Sims-like video game, complete with singing critters and "cute and cuddly little neighbors." (James Ortiz designed the puppets that are alternately adorable and menacing in each vignette. Haydee Zelideth's colorful costumes add additional storybook touches.) Reminiscences of her grandparents (again, Valdes-Aran and Stram) make her come to terms with her own sense of loss and directionless life.

Finally, Beckett (J.D. Mollison) takes the mic, and he, too, freshly single, moves into a new home. He takes up residence in a tiny studio apartment in the basement of a red brick building in Brooklyn. Like the other two, Beckett wrestles with his own inner turmoil and seeks refuge from well-meaning friends and family members. He fortifies himself from metaphorical wolves and contagions in what he refers to as "a house made of stone where I can't hurt anyone./ A house made of stone where no one can hurt me."

The musical adroitly employs fairy-tale motifs, such as repeated lines, images, and themes. For instance, instead of "Once upon a time," each storyteller begins her or his narrative with "during the pandemic/ when the lockdown hit," and then each says later, "so this is the story/ of how I went a little bit crazy/ living alone in the pandemic." And enjoining the stories to "The Three Little Pigs," the bartender Wolf offers Susan (the first little pig, so to speak) a straw–albeit of the metal drinking variety. He gives Sadie a stick–that is a swizzle stick for stirring her drink–and sardonically drops a brick on Beckett's table.

At times, however, the whimsy and cleverness nearly overwhelm the probing character studies. For example, the Sims scene with its precious cartoon-like characters as well as a carnival song about a quarter-depleting arcade game (while effective musically) do not give sufficiently deeper insight into Sadie's emotional breakdown. A large, swinging spider puppet is fun visually but does little to intensify Beckett's harrowing sense of dread.

If there are instances in which Malloy's script and score wrestle with too many ideas, there are several musical moments that are positively ravishing. In "Berries and Plums," a gorgeous and haunting song, Susan's grandparents describe the sense of longing and despair that characterized their complicated relationship. (Or Matias provides the exquisite music direction for an outstanding four-piece combo, and Nick Kourtides's sound design works well in the three-quarter thrust staging.) Similarly effective is "Haze," Sadie's rumination on her own feelings of unmooring that are exacerbated by the pandemic. She sings, "my heart broke/ and then the world broke/ and then my brain broke too." It's a devastating yet transporting conclusion to the vignette.

While all the performers under Annie Tippe's shrewd and resourceful direction have occasions to show off their prodigious gifts, they also work exceptionally well as an ensemble. They assume different roles, or in the case of Wolf, variations of a character, and they blend beautifully both vocally and dramatically.

In some versions of "The Three Little Pigs," the porcine homeowners not only rejoice gaily after vanquishing the huffing and puffing marauder, but they eat the wolf for dinner. Indeed, Three Houses does not end in joyful celebration nor with the equivalent of an arrogant, self-satisfied ditty like "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" There is communion and hopefulness among the three storytellers, for sure, but there is also a sense of rue that the next metaphysical threat may be biding its time and catching its breath.

Three Houses
Through June 9, 2024
Signature Theatre
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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