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Theatre in Review: Three Houses (Romulus Linney Theatre at Signature Theatre Company)

Margo Siebert. Photo: Marc J. Franklin

The design collective known as dots has collectively outdone itself with the set for Three Houses. They've come up with a tavern that, over time, has acquired the kind of seedy patina that only makes it more appealing; it's a dark, cool place, which, as lit by Christopher Bowser, is the ideal spot for clandestine late-night disclosures. Placed on a second level, the bar, featuring a quilted fa├žade and some kicky little hanging lamps, is backed by a mural that, from time to time, will change. (Is it a scenic effect? A video gag? No idea, but it's unobtrusively clever.) The environment is colored by a combination of whiskey-colored paneling and fake slate tiles. The far upstage wall is covered with deer heads and ducks positioned in flight. Two portals are lined in fancy-looking wrought iron. On the ground level are tables, chairs, a well-used scarlet-and-gray carpet, and, hanging overhead, a single, sad faux Tiffany lamp. I have no idea where Three Houses is supposed to take place and I'm not sure that author-composer Dave Malloy does either, but it is an uncanny tribute to the Midwestern roadhouses of my youth. I instantly wanted to order a Manhattan.

As it happens, an evening of cocktails and confessions is exactly what Malloy has in mind, but the latter are sometimes so elaborately embroidered that they lose much of their appeal. Three Houses is a trilogy of episodes from the COVID pandemic, a set of variations on the theme of isolation and its corrosions. Treated with a healthy dose of whimsy, the stories are filled with repeating motifs: ancestral homes, intrusions by relatives living and/or dead, obsessional behavior, and puppet animals. (The last is regrettable but revealing, showing how much Molloy is trying to sugar-coat his bleak musical with winsome, children's tropes.) Each protagonist has just broken up with a partner whose name begins with J; each initially revels in his or her isolation before confronting their crippling abnormalities. Three Houses is an evening founded on eternal recurrence, which is a nice way of saying it repeats itself.

First up is Susan, a writer, who, having separated from her husband Julian, flees to her late grandmother's ranch house in Latvia. Among its charms are a massive book collection (taking in everyone from Joan Didion to Danielle Steel) and a stash of red currant wine. Susan has brought with her "an absolutely atrocious amount of weed" donated by a stranger she met in a Finnish sauna. With the makings of a years-long high at her disposal, she sets about rearranging the books, fiction separated from non-fiction, everything in alphabetical order. To her surprise, she finds the makings of a contented existence amid a global health emergency, even when imagining the worst. "I fantasized about emerging from my house in the forest into an apocalyptic landscape," she sings. "Fantasized about going crazy at the end of the world. Julian always said I had a darkness inside." You know, Julian might have been onto something.

Susan sole companion is a dragon named Pookie until her grandmother's spirit shows up, refusing to confirm or deny the contents of the memoir she left behind detailing her marital problems. (She and Susan's grandfather separated during World War II when he couldn't bring himself to abandon the family farm. The grandfather "always had a darkness/Demons lurking underneath his skin," we are told. Sound familiar?) Over time, Susan spirals down, indulging in self-harm and fearing that she is going crazy. "I went to Latvia to run away from myself. but instead, I found myself in the ghost of my grandpapa," she tells us. As it happens, she's not alone.

For example, there's Sadie, who, having parted from her girlfriend, seeks refuge in her aunt's house in New Mexico. Faced, like Susan, with "too much time and nothing to fill it," she admits, "I spent the majority of my time in Taos building a digital replica of my grandparents' house inside one of those cute and obsessive life-simulation video games." (Representing the citizens of her imaginary village is Zippy, a non-specific puppet animal who becomes her imaginary friend.) Before too long, she is spending fourteen hours a day on the project; this cues a flashback to the time her grandparents gave her a roll of quarters for the local fish festival, which, in an early warning sign of gambling addiction, she blew on a con-pushing arcade game. The moment of truth that follows leaves her admitting, "My heart broke/And then the world broke/And then my brain broke, too," leaving her "drifting through the haze."

Following Sadie is Beckett -- now there's a cheery first name -- who, newly divorced from his wife, Jackie, holes up "a little Utah-shaped room in the basement of a butcher shop" in Brooklyn. (Not surprisingly, his spirit puppet animal is Shelob, a giant spider.) An initial burst of optimism ("I will become actualized! I will finally be my true self!") gives way to agoraphobia as he begins to ignore work calls, neglects his sister, and engages in cagey negotiations with delivery persons. What he does have time for are lengthy visitations from his long-gone grandparents, "this mad old hermit couple that lived in Ireland" with oddly spiritual notions about stones. Beckett's big problem makes him a spiritual sibling to the others: "What happened between you and this 'Jackie'?" Shelob asks. "Did you let her see the darkness within?"

It's around this time that one realizes Susan, Sadie, and Beckett are an existential edition of The Three Little Pigs, each trapped in a house that needs to be blown down. The story is subtly evoked throughout, along with other fairytales: Not for nothing is the bartender (and the evening's emcee) named Wolf; the grandparents' sequence of Beckett's story features a lupine figure dressed like a grandma. Three Houses is a regular Into the Woods, except for a book that is psychologically thin and overdecorated with tropes and a score that bogs down in recitative for most of the evening. For all its elaborate use of metaphors and allusions, the show never makes anything compelling of Susan, Sadie, or Beckett, and its mirror-image structure is self-defeating. We're stuck watching three ill-defined characters running in circles, trying to confront their nameless demons.

Annie Tippe's production -- she choreographed and directed -- couldn't be more professional, and the actors throw themselves into their characters' states of angst with total conviction. Margo Seibert, a performer who radiates a natural authority, commands our attention as Susan. The role of Sadie is more challenging -- her descent into a childlike world gets to be pretty grating -- but Mia Pak does as much as anyone can to free it from cutesiness. J. D. Mollison's Beckett is the most compelling of the three leads, partly because his circumstances are truest to the early days of the pandemic when one didn't know if an unwiped cereal box had viral implications. Providing sterling support are Scott Stangland as the gruff, yet sympathetic, Wolf and Henry Stram and Ching Valdes-Aran as the various grandparents.

Among the other design credits, Haydee Zelideth's costumes are attractive and appropriate; the dark green ensemble worn by Seibert takes the light especially well. James Ortiz, New York's king of puppets, once again delivers; if we must have them, he is the guy to create them. Nick Kourtides's sound design struggles a bit with a layout that places the four-person musical ensemble around the auditorium. In my section, the French horn tended to interfere with comprehension of the lyrics. Even under the musical direction of Or Matias, however, the score never approaches the lyric beauty of Octet, Malloy's most recent major project, staged at Signature in 2019.

There's also another factor at work: Audiences may be suffering from the theatrical equivalent of long COVID. It's extremely difficult to dramatize an episode so mired in inaction and powerlessness. Suzan-Lori Parks did so, brilliantly, with her Plays for the Plague Year, and it's totally understandable why theatre artists might want to deal with this collectively traumatic episode. But Three Houses is hemmed in by its limitations, talking and singing constantly without saying very much at all. I didn't want to spend time under lockdown with these people; like Julian, Jasmine, and Jackie, I would have preferred a little peace and quiet. --David Barbour


(21 May 2024)

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