Review: Pandemic Meltdown Musical ‘Three Houses’ Finds Song in Solitude

Dave Malloy juggles book, music, lyrics, and orchestrations in this musical triptych about Covid Times. The score is entertainingly eclectic, but the dramatic tension and character development are wobbly.

J.D Mollison, Margo Seibert, and Mia Pak in Three Houses. Marc J. Franklin

Hey, what’d you do for the pandemic? Sorry to be so 2022, but the topic’s hard to avoid regarding Dave Malloy’s Three Houses, currently running at the Signature Theatre. We certainly know what Malloy did: He wrote a musical triptych about Covid Times. Or rather, about three people losing their minds from isolation and introspection during lockdown in Latvia, Taos, and Brooklyn, and how they’re redeemed through connection in song. 

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Three Houses is a sort of companion piece to Malloy’s previous Signature outing (in the same space, too: the roomy and flexible Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre). Internet addiction was the theme in 2019’s Octet, set in a church basement redolent of AA meetings, but which really served as a metaphorical space for purging sins. Each of the eight characters in Octet got a number explaining how being Extremely Online derailed their lives. It ended, as Three Houses does, with a gently hopeful move towards peace. Where the earlier show was a cappella, Three Houses has a small but colorful ensemble of piano, organ, strings, and French horn (plus electronics). Malloy has also scaled down the number of protagonists. 

Which invites us to do the math. Octet covered eight stories in 100 minutes. Three Houses rolls out a trio of tales in about the same time. An average of 12 minutes per character previously, 33 in the current one. I wish I could say that half an hour spent with Susan, Sadie, and Beckett over two continents was thoroughly engrossing. But there’s a draggy sameness to their quarantine journeys—reinforced by recurring plot details—that grows repetitive rather than resonant. Each narrative follows a pattern: post-romantic breakup, a person retreats to a temporary space during lockdown, goes nuts from loneliness, self-medicates, reconnects spiritually with grandparents and, bruised but wiser, recovers their senses. As an extra intertextual layer, the whole affair references “The Three Little Pigs,” with a bearded hipster bartender (Scott Strangland) standing in for the Big Bad Wolf. I’m not sure whether you’d call Three Houses a fable retconned as a covid parable, or a covid parable trapped inside a fable. Either way, it comes across as putting a hat on a hat.

Mia Pak and Margo Seibert in Three Houses. Marc J. Franklin

Anyway, let’s meet our appealing, young Pandy pilgrims. Newly single novelist Susan (Margo Seibert) flees to her grandmother’s house in the Latvian countryside. There, she delights in solitude, organizing granny’s sprawling library, smoking weed and getting lit on red currant wine. However, weeks of dissipation and self-loathing take their toll, and there’s an inevitable emotional collapse. Sadie (Mia Pak) decamps for her aunt’s ranch house in Taos and, not content with that escape from reality, retreats further into a Sims-like video game, building a replica of her grandparents’ house in Ohio. Sadie hits rock bottom spending 14 hours a day in her digital utopia. Beckett (J.D. Mollison) waits out the virus in a basement apartment, filling it with dozens of Amazon delivery boxes that symbolize his primary connection to the outside. Beckett also boozes (his Irish grandfather’s favorite plum brandy), hallucinates a giant, talking spider, and generally loses his marbles.

Resourceful and witty director Anne Tippe stages these echoing odysseys in a handsome lounge bar designed by the collective dots, noirishly lit by Christopher Bowser. It’s karaoke night, and each person steps up to the microphone, like a latter-day plague exile in the Decameron, to relate their experience. Downtown theater icons Ching Valdes-Aran and Henry Stram hover on the periphery as enigmatic waiters who take on supporting roles as grandparents. Further variation from the sung-through monologues comes in the form of a trio of amusing puppets designed by the marvelous James Ortiz: a cutesy, Elmo-sounding Dragon (voiced by Pak); a gung-ho anime badger (Mollison); and a sexy English arachnid nicknamed Shelob (Seibert). 

Mia Pak in Three Houses. Marc J. Franklin

Lurking behind each narrator at the mic, the bartender signals their karaoke coda by blowing cigarette smoke into the spotlight. You know, huffing and puffing and blowing their you-know-whats down. By the end of the night, Strangland has donned a wolf’s head and grandmother’s nightgown (blurring Little Red and Little Pigs), and our cathartically healed heroes are encouraged to dance with the beast. The message: the monster is going to blow your house down anyway, so make peace with it. And: connect with strangers. Also: Your grandparents’ trauma explains your trauma. Mileage will vary on how hard such sentiments hit. 

As with all Malloy projects (the apex of which is Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812), his score is entertainingly eclectic: pseudo-Baltic reels, electronica, and a plangent, earthly melding of folk and indie rock. Borrowing from baroque pop and musical theater, Malloy’s work achieves a sound world compositionally more complex than 99% of what’s on Broadway—yet engaging, due his literate humor and obvious love of popular idioms. Two numbers particularly stood out for me. In “Haze,” we get the perfect ballad for the walking wounded when Sadie sings, “My heart broke / And then the world broke / And then my brain broke too.” Later, Beckett shares a bitter insight in “Love Always Leaves You in the End.” Too often though, one sits through fussy, prosy verbiage that doesn’t sing so great, following a quirky story whose arc you can already predict. This is no knock on the nimble and charming Seibert, Pak, and Mollison, who do sterling service with hectic, challenging material.

Malloy (juggling book, music, lyrics, and orchestrations) produces lovely passages, but dramatic tension and character development is where Three Houses starts to wobble on its foundations and devolves into an allegorical anthology with diminishing returns. Narration and description take up so much text, the action stalls in passive self-regard. Alternating speaking and singing might have been a wiser tactic or tightening each episode by ten minutes. For a writer inspired by loneliness, Molloy should seek out creative company: a book writer, for example, who could help shape his prodigious musical imagination, and push back when he blows too hard. 

Three Houses | 1hr 45mins. No intermission. | Pershing Square Signature Center | 480 West 42nd Street | 212-244-7529 | Buy Tickets Here   

Review: Pandemic Meltdown Musical ‘Three Houses’ Finds Song in Solitude