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Learn to Be Lonely: “Three Houses” reviewed

Back in the spring months of 2020, I saw many of my friends who work in creative enterprises say online “Let’s not have a bunch of shows about the pandemic when this is over.” The thinking being, I presume, that no artistic recreation of something we all experienced at the same time could come close to the acuteness of what we already knew, and would know, from having lived through it. (If we were, of course, to be so lucky.)

Well, four years have gone by and although COVID still exists, we’ve graduated to a point where such works now live, as evidenced by Three Houses, Dave Malloy’s new chamber-musical premiering at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Before COVID, Malloy (best known for amputating a portion of War and Peace and making it accessible in musical form in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812) debuted another intimate musical in the same space: Octet, about a support group for people addressing various forms of internet-related addiction. Three Houses subtracts five cast members but doubles down on the despair and solipsism to show how three people weathered the storm when lockdown hit. “How I Spent the Pandemic,” this show, directed by Annie Tippe (who also helmed Octet) could be called. But as my aforementioned friends above declared, why should anyone else care?

Three Houses takes place – sort of – at a metaphysical dive with an open mic. A bartender Wolf (Scott Stangland) encourages three separate perfomers to open up. “Don’t be afraid to go deep,” he tells them. But instead they go long, explaining to us how they were each reeling from heartbreak independent of public health threats that sent them to hole up in three very distinct places. Their quest for order ends up creating a bigger mess for each of them. Susan (Margo Seibert) headed to her dead grandmother’s ranch home in Latvia, pointlessly alphabetizing the library. Sadie (Mia Pak) moved into her aunt’s New Mexico home, becoming obsessed with a game that melds Animal Crossing with The Sims. Newly divoreced Beckett (J.D. Mollison) hid in a rented Brooklyn basement apartment, ordering non-stop from Amazon and turning the packages into a fort.

Shrouded by their own solipsism, we eventually learn more about each character’s distractions and vices – the same weapons they wield to protect themselves, emotionally and physically, from the scary world around them are the ones that led to their predicaments even before the world changed. As Susan, Sadie, and Beckett ignore expectations and work obligations (aren’t any of them concerned about job security? Don’t any of them need money or health benefits?!), their portrayers certainly peel back the layers, and do so in great voice (they are well-guided by musical director Or Matias).

Ultimately, the symmetry of Malloy’s structure ultimately feels too comfortable a, well, house, for stories about characters sent adrift and grasping for control. The evening’s three segments each run parallel to one another. Each has seven parts, followed by a coda. Each scenario follows a breakup and references a fable.  Each has an obligatory puppet — a Latvian house dragon, a video game badger, a creepy spider, all designed by James Ortiz. Each features the character’s grandparents, gamely portrayed by co-stars Henry Stram and Ching Valdes-Aran.

Three Houses is fun and fragile, but it ultimately doesn’t say anything. What can it contribute about living through the pandemic? I wish I knew.

Three Houses
Signature Center
www.signaturetheatre.org