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Monday, 20 December 2010 23:19

Off-Broadway Review: THREE PIANOS

Written by
Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt (l-r) in Three Pianos Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy and Rick Burkhardt (l-r) in Three Pianos Photo: Joan Marcus

The New York Theatre Workshop production of Three Pianos is one of the most ambitious and esoteric pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time.  The subject matter and the delivery are unique and intriguing.  This will not, however, be everyone’s cup of tea.

After getting my tickets from the press agent in the lobby I was handed two plastic glasses along with my tickets and media kit.  As the audience was getting seated, the three cast members stood in the aisles and poured red wine for us.  As the show began, the three men hopped up on stage, donned sweaters and the house lights went down...

While this would be classified as a musical, it’s like no musical you’ve ever seen.  It uses Shuberts 24-song cycle Winterreise, completed in 1827 and based on a series of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller.  It’s a beautiful but grim piece of music that one might more readily associate with a depressed run-up to suicide than a boozy post-show party.  But that is the genesis of this daring and original piece of work.

The three creators (also its performers), Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy were all at a post-show party after the presentation of one of the men’s works at Judson Memorial Church.  Infused with whiskey, Malloy was wandering around the choir loft when he came upon a copy of the Schubert song cycle.  Knowing that the other two were also fans of Schubert, he sat down at the piano and began to play it.  Next thing you know, the drunk and rowdy group are singing along and sliding across the floor while kibitzing and having a merry old time.

Unfortunately, what was so amusing to this inebriated group of Schubertians that night at the church seems here like one big inside joke.  It features three barely drawn characters who we get to know only minutely (though we do learn a fair amount about Franz Schubert and some of his friends.)  In trying to recreate that evening in the church in 2009 the audience is served wine during two scheduled breaks to further lubricate the audience.  Mind you, there is no intermission, just two of these drink breaks.  Naturally this will leave the audience giddy and perhaps a bit drunk.  There are definitely funny moments in the show, just not THAT funny.  The woman behind me found it necessary to giggle at every word the three said.  And when she wasn’t giggling she was pouring wine from the bottle at her feet or talking to her friend.

The three men alternate between playing themselves at a gathering and playing Franz Schubert and his male contemporaries, including the poet Frans von Shober, Johann Mayrhofer, Schubert’s lyricist for more than 40 songs, and the painter Moritz von Schwind at a Schubertiad.  The dialogue is casual and laden with contemporary references.  It fluidly blends the two time periods with one of the men referring to Schubert as “Schubs” and another passing a reference to texting.

Rachel Chavkin has done a fine job of choreographing this piece, which features a constant ballet of moving pianos that serve a dual purpose as both pianos and various pieces of scenery. Sometimes the pianos are even being played WHILE they're being moved.  Messrs. Burkhardt, Duffy and Malloy are talented men.  They sing, they play and they deftly deliver the comedic lines.

The scenic design by Jessica Pabst was intriguing and includes trees (both upright and hanging from the ceiling), white fluorescent tubes hanging in midair like a “Star Wars” light-saber, a scale model of a church, and an entrance area that resembles a laundry room.  There is a gold frame suspended over the stage that frames a video screen which shows song titles and lyrics.  Interestingly, this looked exactly like the same gold mirror that was hung on stage during NYTW’s last show, The Little Foxes, also used to frame video.

There are some interesting things going on here but it appears it’s better with non-stop flowing alcohol. Bertolt Brecht said, “Theater without beer is a museum.”  Not really being a drinker, who am I to say.  Interestingly enough, Three Pianos won a 2010 OBIE Award for its premiere last March at the experimental space at St. Mark’s church in the East Village, Ontological-Hysteric Theater.

Additional Info

  • Theatre: New York Theater Workshop
  • Theatre Address: 79 East 4th St. New York, NY
  • Show Style: Musical
  • Previews:: December 7, 2010
  • Opening Night: December 19, 2010
  • Closing: January 9, 2011
Last modified on Wednesday, 22 December 2010 11:03