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Theater Review: Three Pianos Is a Party That Won’t End (But Should Have)

Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy, and Rick Burkhardt, in Three Pianos.

One can only imagine how much rambunctious fun Three Pianos must’ve been when it was a young, spontaneous burp of black-box combustion back at the Incubator Arts Project. Picture it: three hopeless bromantics—Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy—each manning a tinny upright, throwing back shots, pureeing personal stories of heartbreak with music-history footnotes, and tag-teaming the Winterreise (or “Winter’s Journey”), Franz Schubert’s 24-song cycle of ultimate lovelorn bummed-out-ness, as the audience gets steadily blotto.

The show apparently grew out of a debauched Valentine’s Day bash in 2009, where the trio (two of whom are composers, all of whom are theatermakers) discovered a mutual love of Romanticism’s most glorious mope, and played and sang the entire “Journey” together before the night was through. Realizing they’d re-created the kind of all-night, hooch-lit “Schubertiad” that old Franz liked to throw for his circle of eccentric artist pals—the kind of party where the composer actually debuted the Winterreise, solo and tipsy at the keys, in 1828, just months before his death—Burkhardt, Duffy and Malloy set about converting the experience into a show, a relaxed-fit evening of hip musical scholarship, light role-play, and guys’-night-in yammering.  

I sincerely wish I could say the results are even half as delightful as these guys think they are. But Three Pianos feels more like a powerful argument for playing a “Happening” where it lies—and knowing the different between happening and happened. From the forced merriment of its earliest moments, the show feels like exhaustion itself, the death-spasms of a long party—the moment when the harsh overhead lights have been flipped on, the stereo’s gone pointedly silent, the last stragglers are starting to sober up ... and there are still three jerks at the piano, entertaining each other at top volume, oblivious.

There are some core miscalculations in play here. First, none of the gentlemen onstage is a trained singer, a point they all interrogate endlessly, throughout the show, with the kind of self-deprecating hepcat metaness that annoyeth royally. “I think an untrained voice is more honest than a product of years of classical training,” lectures Dave, who adds he “can’t help it if he has this Neil Diamond thing” in his pipes. Besides: “Schubert was singing this all drunk and trashed with his crazy poet friends!” Get it, friends? The boys are out to free the Winterreise from its girdle of chamber-music solemnity and restore its hot, manly self-pity, its beery oomph, its 3 a.m. phone-call plangency. Here’s the ultimate emo composition, a breakup mixtape addressed to Life itself, and the boys want to revivify it with their shower-voices and human-sized romantic situations. But these voices are not only untutored but a little strangled, suppressed, overconsidered. (In all fairness: The night I attended, Malloy seemed to have a cold.) Some of their collaborative keyboard tricks are cute, like the winning musical-chairs version of “Auf Dem Flusse,” but the sparse, un-sumptuous, utterly bloodless fingerwork also has a funny way of making three pianos sound like... less than one. Bravura performance obviously isn’t the point here, but would a little passion and the talent to bring it off really be too much to ask?

Characterization is pretty far down the priority list, as well. The fellas themselves, who go by their own names on stage, and on whose personae the whole enterprise rests, feel more like factory-made Apatovian standees than real people. Oh, they banter itchily and fight (over what, it’s not entirely clear/interesting), but their friendship, much-referenced, is little-developed, never coming into focus. (Late-act attempts to play off the guys’ relationship-dynamic fall fatally flat: Did we ever care about Dave’s breakup? Alec’s insecurities? Rick’s down-in-the-mouth identification with the mad, dying Schubert? Did we even realize these issues were issues until the guys pointedly instructed us to care? No.) The agenda here isn’t ecstatic or cathartic, but pedantic. Like some tripartite, mumblecore Peter Schickele—with about half the musicianship—these guys want you to really, like, hear these songs, dude. No, like, really hear them. No. Like. Hear. Them. They’re looooove songs. About a breakup. What’s the boys’ perspective? That these songs are relevant. Okay. Was anyone suggesting they weren’t? No, but... dude, you gotta hear these songs!

Well, hear them we do, though not quite all two dozen. (Select lieder are breezily declared “bad” and skipped, to the audible relief of the audience, but given the utter lack of authority, these merciful excisions still smack of mere expediency.) Yet our guides don’t exactly sway from song to song like happy drunks. They labor dutifully, twirling their pianos into creative formations, donning and doffing sauerkraut accents and stockroom costumes, and scurrying tirelessly around Andreea Mincic’s vast, superfluous rubble field of a set (gravestones and birch trees, fluoro icicles, a washing machine, potted plants, the literal and the figurative set higgledy-piggledy, at just-cuz angles). Everyone’s working overtime to prove that this is a show, instead of what it actually is: a fading memory of a fun night. Director Rachel Chavkin displays far too much patience with her own players and the luxuriant sprawl of her production. If the idea is to simulate the waist-deep malaise of Schubert’s snowy Wanderer: Well done, gentlemen and lady. And thanks for the free vino. But I can get drunk at home, with iTunes and a cold schnitzel, and find myself in a far more authentic party environment than this.

Through January 9 at New York Theater Workshop.

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter: @scottstagedive.

Photo: Joan Marcus