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, nytw.org

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, ps122.org

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, lct.org

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, 2st.com

John Gabriel Borkman
Performances begin January 7
This spring, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will offer an archetype seemingly absent from the world stage: A banker with a touch of conscience. In this Abbey Theatre production, the wonderfully sullen actor Alan Rickman plays the title character, a financier once jailed for attempted embezzlement, fated to spend his old age with his unhappy wife (Fiona Shaw) and her cunning sister (Lindsay Duncan). Director James Macdonald totes up the balance sheet. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, bam.org

The Hallway Trilogy
Performances begin January 25
Many plays are set within small New York apartments, but few just outside them. An anteroom is apparently the main focus of Adam Rapp’s The Hallway Trilogy, three connected works for the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. In the first, set in 1953, an actress arrives in the foyer of a tenement building. In the second, which takes place 50 years later, a married couple uses that same space to squabble. And in the third, set in 2053, that hallway—indeed, the whole building itself—has become a museum displaying the strife of an earlier era. Rattlestick Playwright Theater, 224 Waverly Place, rattlestick.org

When I Come to Die
Performances begin January 31
Nathan Louis Jackson’s first play, Broke-ology, was somewhat cruel and certainly unusual—it featured a dance number with a garden gnome. But it was in no way punishing. Now, Jackson returns to Lincoln Center with a new piece, again directed by Thomas Kail, that takes a very personal look at the death penalty. A death-row inmate has eaten his last supper and prepared to meet his maker, when he suddenly learns that his life has been spared. His new sentence? Determining why. Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, lct.org

Compulsion
Performances begin February 1
Though it seems hardly credible now, people once kept actual pen-and-paper journals. And despite its lack of hyperlinks or even a single Twitpic, one of those texts, The Diary of Anne Frank, has become one of the most influential books of the last century. Certainly, playwright Rinne Groff seems most intrigued by it. Her new play, directed by Oskar Eustis, follows Sid Silver (a character based on real-life figure Meyer Levin) as he struggles to publicize the diary and adapt it to the stage. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, publictheater.org

The Book of Mormon
Performances begin February 24
On South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker delight in religious ridicule: The Virgin Mary bleeds anally; the Prophet Mohammed appears in a bear suit; a Jewish child worships magical feces. And, oh, the scorn that Zoroastrians have endured. Yet Stone and Parker must feel they’ve neglected the Latter-Day Saints. Thus the duo, in partnership with Avenue Q’s Bobby Lopez, will now make their Broadway debut with The Book of Mormon, a musical comedy devoted to the mockery of that sect. Can’t wait to see the polygamous kick line. Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street

Macbeth
Performances begin March 12
Having so recently played the Emperor Jones, John Douglas Thompson experiences a substantial demotion, signing on as the hero of Shakespeare’s supernatural tragedy, initially a mere thane. But with the help of a conniving wife and a hallucinatory dagger, Thompson should continue his ascent into theatrical royalty. In this Theatre for a New Audience show, Thompson reunites with Arin Arbus, who last directed him in Othello, to nobly portray the murderous Scotsman. The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, tfana.org

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