If you are looking for the one seasonal play to see this winter, Three Pianos is it. Exhuberantly directed by Rachel Chavkin and written/performed by the beyond talented trio of Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy, Three Pianos is so many things: funny, intelligent, irreverant, self-referential, self-deprecating, sad and beautiful, to name a few. After winning an Obie for its run at the Ontological Hysteric last spring, it’s been repolished and moved into New York Theatre Workshop, and is now a more elegant but no less honest version of its former self. The premise is as follows: three friends hanging out on a cold winter’s night, drinking and joking and arguing, stumble into a discussion of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, about which they joke, argue, and perform, drinking copiously throughout. One of the three, (Dave Malloy) recently broke up with his girlfriend, and the comparison between his twenty-first century depression and coping mechanisms and the melancholic, romantic wanderings of the narrator in Winterreise allows the trio to weave their own relationships to Winterreise and one another into their discussion and performances of Shubert’s beautiful and strange song cycle.
The gorgeous set (excellently designed by Andreea Mincic) resembles an apartment downstage and a wintery wasteland upstage, with large, bare tree branches and vertical fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. As the trio delve further into their imaginings inspired by the piece, they pull props, like an 18th century lamp, or a mail carrier’s tricycle, from unexpected places. One of my favorite gags is when Malloy pulls a bottle of vodka from a small birdhouse. He and his fellow castmates are eager to share the booze, serving us wine before we take our seats and passing more bottles around at several moments during the play.
A prominent feature of the set is its namesake, the three pianos, which the performers use together and apart. I know little about the art of piano playing, but in my opinion, all three men are superb. I am further impressed by the variety of things they manage to do with these instruments, constantly re-arranging them into different configurations on the set, often playing them as they go: at one point, they arrange the three pianos in a triangle facing inwards, and rotate in a circle, playing and singing as they move. A highly entertaining and impressive feat.
When not wowing us with piano bravado, the trio spends a good amount of time arguing, especially as the play progresses and the alcohol runs dry. They argue about the music, how to represent it and talk about it, what to include and leave out. The discussion is often lighthearted, but it can get intense. At one moment, Malloy says to Burkhardt and Duffy, “…sometimes when you start talking, and talking, and talking, I hate every single thing you’re saying, and it makes me want to, literally, literally, gouge out your eyes. With a piece of glass.”
These moments bring forward the trio’s creative process, their struggles and tensions, which reminds us of the subjectivity of the piece, that Three Pianos is more about Duffy, Burkhardt and Malloys’ relationship to and struggles with Winterreise than it is about Winterreise itself.
Throughout Three Pianos , we rarely get to hear Winterreise without bits of gimmick attached to it, which is fine with me: it’s fun and keeps things moving. It also sets us up for the final moments of the piece. Near Three Pianos’ end there is a long silence: in it, we feel the trio’s exhaustion. Malloy plucks at a couple of random keys on the piano. Finally, Duffy breaks the silence with a, “Sooo…”. These sounds somehow inspire Burkhardt, who asks Duffy and Malloy to repeat and tweak them. He says to Duffy, “Alec, can you say that word you’ve been saying, um, differently? Or just say a different word…?” Duffy responds with, “sooo whaaat…?” asking the question that may be on the minds of his audience. So what? What are we supposed to take from this piece, all the irreverance, the arguing, the alcohol?
It continues: Alec: Rick, you know my life is totally fine without us doing this…things are going well for me and I’m really happy. Rick: Oh.
Malloy:I wonder how my ex is doing. I wonder if she’s cold.
The three begin the final song in Winterreise, “Der Lieermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man),” a quietly haunting piece, played and sung simply by all three at their pianos. It begins to lightly snow on the winter waste-land. It’s a beautiful moment, and a kind of answer. Three Pianos shows us the pains of creation and collaboration, the ways in which we cope with dark times, and the beauty and poetry within that darkness. It is an important piece of theater that you will regret missing. So go, enjoy the wine and song. I promise no eye-gouging urges will occur.