THREE HOUSES, Alike in Lush Musical Dignity— Review


Mia Pak | Photo: Marc J. Franklin

Juan A. Ramirez
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May 21, 2024 8:20 AM

An open mic night centered around Covid loneliness is something on which most of us might justifiably call the police. But, refracted through a Twin Peaks-esque prism of uncanniness, searing terror, and deep sentiment, it becomes Three Houses, a spectacular, haunting new musical by Dave Malloy, premiering at the Signature Center.

Almost a song cycle, were it not so delicately and inventively staged by Annie Tippe, the one-act presents three stories about individuals whose internal isolation came crashing outwards during the pandemic. A bearded bartender in increasingly wolfish attire (Scott Stangland) nudges them towards sharing their tales, delivered as lushly orchestrated (by Malloy), gorgeously sung, near-30-minute soliloquies.

The first is the richest and most emotionally complex, backed by opulent ivories. Susan (Margo Seibert) had just left her husband and waltzed off to her late grandmother’s house in Latvia, where wine and weed initially keep her company. As her introspection then leads to scary depths, she discovers a manuscript detailing the reasons behind her grandparents’ separation, and realizes the familial precedent to her own adventures. With a soaring voice and smoky demeanor, Seibert fills out her part with commanding verve and sensitivity.

The Company | Photo: Marc J. Franklin

Her grandparents are played, quickly and poignantly, by Ching Valdes-Aran and Henry Stram, but the time is mostly Susan’s. As Sadie (Mia Pak) and Beckett (J.D. Mollison) take their turns on the mic, Malloy weaves them further into their narrations; less a monologue than miniature scenes. It’s a choice that seems designed to stave off boredom, but scans a bit as the material growing bored of itself, multiplying its voices so as to stay awake.

…not that the following tales are sleepy. Sadie spends lockdown at her aunt’s house in New Mexico—or, more accurately, recreating her grandparents’ house in a Sims-like online game. The poppiness of her music meets a more macabre sensibility in Beckett’s melancholy spiral, as he finds himself unable to leave the basement apartment he rents after splitting from his wife.

All three worlds are brought to life on a set (by dots) that’s appropriately familiar and sinister; lit with almost cardiovascular intensity by Christopher Bowser, and populated by Haydee Zelideth’s evocative costumes, Nick Kourtides’ sound design, and James Ortiz’s puppets. Oh yes, puppets: spiders and dragons and video game mascots both playful and surreal. And the onstage, four-person quartet – Mona Seyed-Bolorforosh on keys, Yuko Naito-Gotay on violin, Blair Hamrick on french horn, and Maria Bella Jeffers on the cello – is a sensory delight.

Malloy’s gamble with tone, format, approach, and subject matter more than pays off, aided by Tippe’s direction; laser-focused with room for personality. Three Houses is an elegant, psychologically fertile theatrical experience with a score that strives to make beautiful sense out of a harrowing mass experience.

Three Houses is in performance through June 9, 2024 at the Signature Center on West 42nd Street in New York City.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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