Winter Guide: New York Theatre Workshop Uncorks Three Pianos

A guide to winter plays

Winter Guide: New York Theatre Workshop Uncorks <i>Three Pianos</i>

Franz Schubert: Not a fun guy. One of his most celebrated aphorisms reads, “Every night when I go to bed, I hope that I may never wake again, and every morning renews my grief.” Of course, dying of syphilis at the age of 31 might make anyone a touch glum.

In 1828, near the end of his life, Schubert composed the Winterreise (the “winter journey”), a song cycle of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, describing a man’s solitary walk through a frigid and loveless landscape. This wanderer, tears frozen to his face, happy only in his thoughts of suicide, makes even Beckett’s heroes seem positively fancy-free.

Though the Winterreise rather lacks for laughs, chortles accompany Three Pianos, a performance piece by the composer-actor-musicians Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy. Their boozy, boisterous, and unexpectedly hilarious celebration of that cycle won an Obie for its brief run last year at the Incubator Arts Project. The trio, along with director Rachel Chavkin, will again demonstrate their lieder-ship abilities when they remount the piece at New York Theatre Workshop, beginning December 7. While they promise few changes from the anarchic earlier incarnation, spectators who swilled the Trader Joe’s cabernet proffered by the cast at the Incubator may be pleased to learn that the show now has a more reputable wine sponsor.

During a recent Saturday morning at Chavkin’s cat-strewn Prospect Heights apartment, Burkhardt discussed the play’s inception, aided by Malloy, phoning in from a residency near Moscow. (Duffy, then in Istanbul, proved unreachable.) In February of 2009, the three composers all found themselves at an after-party for a show of Malloy’s at Judson Church. “There was a lot of whiskey and a lot of musicians and a big grand piano,” Malloy remembers. Having had plenty of whiskey himself, he wandered up into the church loft and discovered a trove of water-damaged sheet music, including the Winterreise. Recognizing it as a favorite of Duffy’s, he brought it back downstairs and the three men spent the rest of the soiree playing through it in its entirety. “Best party ever,” says Burkhardt.

Three Pianos largely works to recapture that initial drunken concert, interleaving the music with scenes from Schubert’s own bibulous Vienna get-togethers, which he termed “Schubertiads.” It also features fights among the performers over the merits of musical theater and how much historical background they ought to provide in the show. While Chavkin championed “a whole section on music history,” Burkhardt explains that while he assumes “that people do not know Schubert, I also assume they have no desire to learn about Schubert.”

To render the piece less like a lecture, the trio toss wine bottles, corkscrews, and plastic cups into the audience. They had experimented with drinking throughout themselves, but Malloy says brandy made him cough and Burkhardt, who has an allergy to liquor, once mistook vodka for water and had to run from the rehearsal room. So now most of the drinks onstage are soft ones. Perhaps that fits with Schubert, who once described misery as “the only stimulant left to us.”

Even without the disinhibition that alcohol provides, the performers chase each other around with pianos, succumb to the depression the songs induce, and sulkily refuse to perform certain tunes entirely (“This is like some sappy spring dream thing”). And yet, when they do play, their arrangements and their devotion to the material work to acquaint audience members, most of them not well-versed in classical music, with the cycle’s haunting power. Surely even lugubrious Schubert would raise his glass to that.

'Three Pianos,' starting December 7, New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th STreet,

Winter Theater Listings

Brothers and Sisters and Motherfuckers
Performances begin December 15 If Santa does determine presents based on whether you’ve been naughty or nice, deciding Dynasty Handbag’s haul must give him quite a headache. Dynasty, the “solo music/video/voiceover/comitragic performance vehicle created and executed by Jibz Cameron,” is nice because she’s naughty. Nasty, too. In this Christmas extravaganza, the multimedia miss will serve up a holiday dinner whose guests include “spiders, old babies, secrets, psychic siblings, hexagonal twins”—and the devil. P.S.122, 150 First Avenue,

Other Desert Cities
Performances begin December 16
The casual visitor might think Palm Springs an unusually pleasant and tranquil settlement. But ample animosity lingers just below the surface of those verdant lawns, those glossy swimming pools, and those springy tennis courts, at least according to Jon Robin Baitz’s new play. A woman, Elizabeth Marvel, arrives to spend Christmas in the resort town, but she’s brought a surprise in her suitcase—a memoir that will expose all her family secrets. Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street,

Gruesome Playground Injuries
Performances begin January 4
Doug and Kayleen don’t meet-cute. His face is awash in blood; she can’t stop puking. But on adjoining beds in the elementary school infirmary, they forge a prepubescent connection. Gruesome Playground Injuries follows their affections and illnesses over the next 30 years. In Animals Out of Paper and A Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Rajiv Joseph has revealed a talent for combining anguish and antic humor. His characters are all wounded, either physically or psychologically—though rarely so often or so grotesquely as Doug and Kayleen. Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street,

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