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Three Pianos

This ambitious mash-up of schoolboy humor and classical music is often touching, but ultimately feels overextended.

Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy, and Rick Burkhardt
in Three Pianos
(© Joan Marcus)
Metatheatrics collide with schoolboy humor and classical music in the Obie Award-winning Three Pianos, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop. Written and performed by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy, the show is an ambitious mash-up, and can be, by turns, touching and illuminating. But at two-plus intermissionless hours, it also feels overextended, despite the trio's impressive musicianship, a truly gorgeous physical production that's been guided by Rachel Chavkin, and the free wine that flows copiously throughout the audience.

At its core, the piece tells the stories of three guys, who stumble into one of their apartments late one winter night, and proceed to get drunk while two of them help the third deal with his breakup. As they do, they begin to channel a "Schubertiad," one of the parties which were thrown by the composer for his friends, other musicians and poets, a sort of a high-art bacchanalia. Interspersed with the scenes that blur past and present are almost academic discourses on Schubert's opus, "Wintereise," a 24-song cycle that focus on a man who leaves his lover in the middle of the night to wander in the woods and from bucolic town to bucolic town.

Some of the evening's highpoints actually come during these latter sections. For instance, when the group hits the 17th song in the piece, "Im Dorfe (In the Village)," they dissect the way in which the song's melody contradicts the piece's lyrics while the accompaniment illustrates them. Equally fascinating are moments when the present-day stage incarnations of Rick, Alec and Dave channel Schubert and his contemporaries, distilling bits of historical and biographical information (including the heartbreaking details of the romance that might have led Schubert to compose the cycle) that for most classical music naifs are little-known.

Three Pianos stalls, however, when the writing and performance aspires to a sort of frat boy-like anarchy. The improvised sequences -- there are a pair of them -- when the performers come into the house to proffer wine to the audiences (bottle are passed through each row) are strained. Moreover, although the liberal use of anachronisms that pepper the "historical" sections initially inspires smiles and even giggles, it's a device that grows stale, and one can't help but wonder if both the casual aspects of the piece and its looseness with time and space might feel more organic in a more intimate setting.

But, whenever theatergoers' patience with the show wears thin, the music returns, and when this happens, the guys consistently triumph. Working with three upright pianos on wheels, which seem to be constantly in motion, they play portions of Schubert's songs, individually (watching as Malloy plays one song shifting between all three instruments that have been arranged into a triangle is a particular highlight) and as a group. And although the performers' sometimes thin voices do not always do justice to the songs, they are more than credible singers, and Duffy proves to be quite versatile as an actor switching between accents and demeanors with lightning-like precision.

Additionally, the piece looks gorgeous: scenic designer Andreea Mincic has created an abstracted environment replete with leafless trees and a miniature Victorian mansion that evoke the landscape of Schubert's songs and Austin R. Smith has lit the production to perfection. There's an elegance to these elements that's at odds with the calculated haphazardness of the material, but then, perhaps like Schubert's own inventions, that's the point.