Three Pianos: Ambition, Anachronism, and a Fun Party

Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy, Rick Burkhardt. Photo Ryan Jensen

Three Pianos by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy, American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, 12/7/11-1/8/12,

Reviewed by Gillian Daniels

In Three Pianos, Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy look to reconcile the historical Schubertiade with more modern, boozy gatherings of friends.

The production believes there’s little difference between the parties that Schubert threw for his friends, prominent artists during the Romantic movement, and the soirees of contemporary audiences.  Particularly entertaining are the actors, in the guise of German guests, deciding who should go on a beer run.

The past and present bleed together imperfectly, but the result is a delightful evening riffing on and philosophizing about some of the best music of the 19th century.  There’s no solid story to speak of, which may scare off less adventurous audiences, but what it lacks in plot Three Pianos makes up in momentum and humor.

Comedy is probably the most important component of the play.  Without humor and moments of brilliant absurdism, the show would feel like a very dry exercise in music theory.  Instead, the material is treated lightly, turning the audience into party guests, treating them as contemporaries rather than students.

With the stage turned into a winter forest, the cast of three describe (then play, sing, and act out) Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, a song cycle in which a man wanders through the woods as he speculates on his lover.  Burkhardt, Duffy, and Malloy use the music as a springboard to explore their connection to music and sadness, as lost in their ruminations as the main character of Schubert’s music.

In between re-enacting Schubert’s parties and pontificating on the historical context of his work, Dave Malloy explores a compelling thread of a man missing his ex-girlfriend as he confronts depression.  It’s a more grounded, welcome side plot in an ambitious play, conceding that while Schubert’s melancholy Winterreise may not be for everyone, the emotional core of it remains universal.

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