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Three Houses

Dave Malloy’s use of the Wolf and the Three Little Pigs to tell three separate tales of disengagement during the Covid lockdown is as compelling as it is ingenious.

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Scott Stangland as Wolf and J. D. Mollison as Beckett in a scene from Dave Malloy’s “Three Houses” at The Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Someone once coined the adage, “Write what you know.”  For the past few seasons, we have seen many writers have a lot to say about surviving the Covid lockdown, but none so eloquently as Dave Malloy in Three Houses. Where there is often the sameness in the stories we’ve heard thus far, Malloy chooses to give us three not so disparate individuals each with a particular heartbreaking loneliness. All three tales are prefaced “so this is the story of how i went a little bit crazy living alone in the pandemic.” Where aloneness is ripe for scenes that are maudlin, Malloy setting these tales to music is rapture.

Ironically, the first musical Signature Theatre ever produced was Malloy’s Octet, coincidentally in this very same Signature venue, in May of 2019. That musical was a look at a support group for internet addicts. The eight singers each had an extended solo to create a mini-character portrait in the midst of the group “choral” numbers. In Three Houses there are three main characters and each “live with us” for about 30 minutes each in the guise of an open mic night in a cocktail bar, in effect giving the audience the role of “support group” if we choose to accept it.

Susan (Margo Seibert) is first to be invited up to the mic. Wolf, the bartender, offers her a straw for her drink. This will make sense after the other two storytellers have taken their turns at the mic. Susan after a divorce finds herself in her late grandmother’s gigantic ranch house in the midst of a forest of white birch trees in Latvia. Grandmama died six years ago so one imagines it is in the same condition as the day she left this earth but add pounds of dust for effect. Susan spends her days “excavating her mad collection of knickknacks and relics and oddball curios” listening to decades of vinyl and conversing with Pookie, a Latvian household dragon puppet “that steals and hoards treasures for her master,” who holds court on Susan’s nightstand.

Mia Pak as Pookie and Margot Seibert as Susan in a scene from Dave Malloy’s “Three Houses” at The Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Her obsessive compulsive alphabetizing of grandmama’s vast library and the discovery of “eight magnificent giant glass jugs of red currant wine hiding in grandmama’s basement” force her to see her grandfather’s abandonment of Susan’s mom and grandmama juxtaposed against her own internalized demons and culpability in her failed marriage. The haunting song “the berries and the plums” details her grandparents’ separation and sacrifices to escape the Nazis while “blood” in her tale’s final moments culminates in the chilling “i went to latvia to run away from myself. but instead I found myself in the ghost of my grandpapa. you can’t escape your ancestors. blood runs too deep…i think maybe I’m not the hero in this story. i think maybe i’m the wolf.” Seibert’s rich mezzo carries this denouement beautifully.

Sadie (Mia Pak) is next up, recently breaking up with her girlfriend, has found solace in her aunt’s midcentury adobe house in a valley outside Taos, New Mexico. Incidentally, Wolf the bartender offers her a (swizzle) stick for her drink. Again, this motif becomes clear once we hear the third story. Sadie’s own bout with OCD is what ultimately drives the wedge between her and Jasmine, her partner. Sadie is intolerant of anything resembling spontaneity and Jasmine resents Sadie’s controlling what some might consider “obsessive compulsive order.” As Sadie confesses, “see there’s this clicking in my head when certain things line up when like is put with like and there is order.”

Though it comes late in her tale, her song “quarters” detailing how quickly she went through grandma’s roll of quarters at a carnival should have been an indicator that her OCD would eventually have her blossom into the possessed woman who now retreats into a SIMS-like video game building a perfect digital replica of her grandparents’ house in Ohio… for fourteen hours at a clip. She too discovers a boozy treasure trove in her aunt’s basement…this time it’s eight cases of Mexican mezcal…and Sadie too finds some conversation time with a cuddly badger puppet named Zippy she finds in her video game.

Mia Pak as Sadie in a scene from Dave Malloy’s “Three Houses” at The Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Pak’s plaintive mezzo is at its most heartbreaking in her story’s final moment, the song “haze”: “my heart broke and then the world broke and then my brain broke too. and i don’t know which one to blame, i just know i’m not the same.” While acknowledging that everyone went through something during Covid, it lays bare how intensely personal stories all come with their layers of despair. The harmonies provided here by Seibert and J.D. Mollison as Beckett, the third main character, are as transcendent as the ones they provide to underline Sadie’s “dating” when they share syllables in “sometimes it feels like half of me is mis-sing, sometimes it feels like half of me is gone.”

Wolf brings Beckett his drink and drops a brick on his table, thus completing the tools of The Three Little Pigs. According to the original fable, the first pig builds a house of straw which is blown down by the wolf who then eats the first pig. The second pig builds a house of sticks which is also blown down by the wolf and he too is devoured by the wolf. The third pig builds his house of bricks and when the wolf can’t blow it down the wolf resorts to climbing down the chimney but is burned alive by the flame that is set. The third pig avenges the death of his fellow pigs and proceeds to eat the wolf.

Mollison’s dramatic portrayal is the most disturbing. This is a person shutting down completely with family and colleagues reaching out to him in his aloneness. Separated from his wife he fled from everything and everyone. He hunkered down alone in a tiny studio apartment in a red brick basement of a butcher shop in Brooklyn, with one little window looking out on a graveyard. With a little bit of resolve to “become a better person, i will learn from my mistakes, i will reach out to all my friends, i will take care of myself,” he was then undone and upended by the lockdown.  Having left all material things behind with his wife he had nothing but cardboard boxes for furniture and an oversized spider named Shelob for company. Like most people during the lockdown, his best friends became the Amazon website and the delivery man he never saw and the liquor store that brings a case of eight bottles of gramps’ brand of plum brandy every time they swing by.

J.D Mollison as Beckett in a scene from Dave Malloy’s “Three Houses” at The Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Beckett’s voicemails are never answered whether they be from his job, his ex or his sister. Hearing of the Covid deaths of his grandparents in Ireland, he recollects how his grandfather created a clochán in the center of his backyard. This inspires him to create one of his own, in his apartment, out of all the cardboard boxes, thereby making his small living space significantly smaller… “a house made of stone where i can’t hurt anyone. A house made of stone where i can’t get hurt.”

Mollison’s lush baritone pulls all the heartstrings in “love always leaves you in the end,” and in “the summoning” as he builds his fortress within a fortress. It is at the end of that song he is joined by Seibert referencing her alphabetizing of her grandmama’s books and Pak referencing her manipulation of the machine that swallowed her forty quarters. They both assist in the completing of the clochán, before they all sing the “click” of the laying of the final stone. Thankfully the Coda that concludes the piece celebrates the connection that people seek after surviving an apocalyptic event. Just as New Yorkers did after 9/11, and the world did again as Covid waned, we all innocently reach out. In Three Houses, they sing about dreaming of accidentally brushing up against each other’s fingers as they share a small table. That image is sublime.

Director Annie Tippe provides a gentle caress to this material. Where Malloy’s music and lyrics create an enveloping warmth despite the loneliness that is discussed, Tippe helps to unearth the humor that must lay somewhere beneath all the tears. She makes clever use of the small playing space, placing the quartet of musicians in comfy armchairs throughout as fixtures in the homes the three main characters inhabit. Scott Stangland as Wolf provides all the tongue-in-cheek suavity and polish we come to expect from this fable legend. Ching Valdes-Aran and Henry Stram as the grandparents of all three create beautifully nuanced portraits in each segment of the play.

Henry Stram and Ching Valdes-Aran as the Grandparents in a scene from Dave Malloy’s “Three Houses” at The Pershing Square Signature Center (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Three Houses is blessed with one of the finest scenic designs ever for an Off-Broadway house. A cocktail bar that in turn must also be the interiors of all three houses is then held together by a “fringe” at the top of the stage as would have been in any grandparents’ house. Taxidermy and curios on walls fit snugly into each family’s abode, yet we forget they are part of the set by the time we are swept away by the smallness of the clochán. The design team known as dots have created vast scenic wonders in the support of this beautiful play. The mood is enhanced by Christopher Bowser’s expressive lighting that manages to define playing space in an otherwise immersive set. Haydee Zelideth’s costumes for the main characters are perfect for the open mic night while the outfits for the other characters perfectly define the breadth of who the actors must bring to life. James Ortiz’s puppet design is ingenious as it is lighthearted. Pookie the dragon, Zippy the badger, and the vivacious Shelob the oversized spider are vivid full-on characters.

Malloy always has a clear vision. Tackling the book, music, lyrics and orchestrations for a piece with so much message to it is daunting, yet Malloy’s masterwork is a triumph in that it touches us so deeply as it entertains.

Three Houses (through June 16, 2024)

Signature Theatre

Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission

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About Tony Marinelli (57 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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