Review: Three Houses, a Covid Cabaret From Composer Dave Malloy

The writer of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 takes on the pandemic in his newest musical.

146 Three House Signature Theatre Production Photos 2024 L to R J.D Mollison, Margo Seibert, and Mia Pak Credit Marc J Franklin
J.D. Mollison, Margo Seibert, and Mia Pak in the Signature Theatre production of Dave Malloy’s Three Houses
(© Marc J. Franklin)

Three Houses, all alike in psychosis. One’s in Latvia, another’s in Taos, the third’s in Brooklyn. Their respective inhabitants have made their way to a kitschy cocktail bar, where they’ll reenact — through song, puppetry, and interpretive dance — how they all went “a little bit crazy living alone in the pandemic.” If you’re thinking that there’s only one person who could write such a thing, you’re right — it is Dave Malloy.

It isn’t hyperbole to say that Malloy’s latest genre-defying poperetta, running at Signature Theatre, is perhaps the most societally noteworthy new musical to come out of the post-Covid era. A response to the isolation of March 2020 and the largely under-discussed mental health crises that ensued, Three Houses is a ride from start to finish, and, more vitally, has the potential to start a conversation about pandemic-related trauma that the world seems resistant to having.

Malloy traps his trio of protagonists inside the three different locales. Susan (Margo Seibert) just broke up with her husband and fled to the Baltics, seeking refuge in her grandmother’s stately ranch house in the woods. Sadie (Mia Pak) just got dumped by her girlfriend and moved into her aunt’s house just outside of New Mexico. Beckett (J.D. Mollison) split up with his ex and moved into a tiny studio in New York City. All three share the same refrain: “My heart broke and then the world broke and then my brain broke.”

Alone and amid stacks of books and records, Susan consoles herself with weed, red currant wine, and the imaginary companionship of a Latvian dragon. Sadie fills her days buy playing a Sims-like life-simulation video game, where her only pal is a make-believe badger named Zippy. Beckett uses Covid as an excuse to become a hermit, isolating himself from the world, and especially his family, with the help of a fictional spider named Shelob.

Together in the cocktail lounge — presided over by a barkeep named Wolf, as in the big, bad (Scott Stangland) — Susan, Sadie, and Beckett recount how the early days of lockdown exacerbated their respective battles with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Susan alphabetizes all the books in her grandmother’s house as she tries to figure out why her grandpa left the family. Sadie recalls her fixation with an arcade coin pusher game, which led to shame in the eyes of her own grandparents. And Beckett fantasizes about family in Ireland as he literally barricades himself inside his apartment.

Through compellingly fanciful means of storytelling, Malloy builds an off-kilter world filled with acutely recognizable people who are too afraid to admit that they need help (it’s sort of the opposite of his a cappella musical Octet, which was about internet addicts in a group therapy session). Using Covid as a jumping off point, he paints a vivid portrait of three people who go from denying their emotional trauma to being forced to confront them, uncomfortable as it may be.

As a fellow countryman with OCD that was officially diagnosed amid the pandemic, I felt seen by Three Houses in strange and unexpected ways — I don’t actually think I’ve related to a musical more than this one in a long time, and I’d imagine that there are a lot of people who would feel similarly. (I’m sure there will be people who wish the three segments were less cyclical in general plot, but I’d say it pretty brilliantly captures the compulsive repetitions of OCD.)

With musical allusions to his past works, like Great Comet and Ghost Quartet, as typical, Malloy’s score is the most fascinating part. Richly textured in orchestration and played by a four-piece band consisting of piano/organ, violin, French horn, and cello, the score seems to come from the depth of his soul, with haunting (and haunted) lyrics to match. An early song titled “The Berries and The Plums” is particularly glorious in the hands of actors Ching Valdes-Aran and Henry Stram, who take on the roles of the grandparents of each character.

The world-building of Annie Tippe’s production is also impressive. The design collective dots creates a kitschy, immersive set that uses Christopher Bower’s expressive, pulsating lighting to somehow shift the locales while staying more or less the same. Haydee Zelideth’s costumes, and especially Earon Nealey’s hair and makeup designs, are equally significant, allowing the collectively excellent central trio to add even more depth to their expressive and sensitive performances.

As usual with Malloy’s shows, there’s an element of “your mileage may vary” about Three Houses. But after a largely unexceptional Broadway season where a lot of shows seemed to aim for the middle, I was simply thrilled to see a writer shoot for the moon and pretty much get there. There are still theater makers trying to do something different, and even if Three Houses isn’t your thing, it’ll be hard not for you to admire a writer who’s still willing to take a risk.

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Three Houses

Closed: June 16, 2024