'Three Houses' review — pandemic madness and ghosts haunt this unmissable musical

Read our review of Three Houses off Broadway, a new musical written by the Tony Award-nominated creator of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

Caroline Cao
Caroline Cao

Run, don’t walk, to dive into a new Dave Malloy musical, Three Houses, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

At a confessional open mic night, three adult hot messes (Margo Seibert as Susan, Mia Pak as Sadie, and J.D. Mollison as Beckett) share their experiences of early-pandemic isolation, each one fresh from a breakup. Their stories (with fairy tale nods to The Three Little Pigs) are each accompanied by a guilt-tripping puppet avatar. For those experiencing a Malloy musical for the first time, his work often deals with soul-searching in weird and metaphysical ways.

As Covid-19 rages, death is outside the trio's houses. But they’re not safe from the thrumming typhoon of thoughts inside their brains, either. Deprived of touch and companionship, they force-feed themselves mantras for self-improvement, but their insecurities rear their ugly heads. A reckoning awaits. When the future is hazy, how do they deal with solitude and stagnancy?

Annie Tippe’s direction and choreography isn't tidy (at my performance, Nick Kourtides’s sound design and Or Matias’s music direction and supervision sometimes creaked under the score's volatile demands), but they convey the characters' freneticism. The players grasp at their compulsions, catalog their gestures and knickknacks as distractions, or scurry to build fortresses (in Beckett's case, literally, out of Amazon boxes) to try to feel invincible.

As they do so, Malloy's score swerves between styles: recitative, electropop with video game vernacular, haunted house eeriness, folk songs, the drone of a hurdy-gurdy. He pulls various motifs into unexpected harmonic unity.

Peak Malloy music scratches the consciousness like a masked horror villain clawing at the window of a safehouse. It tips into the precipice of anti-feel-good without succumbing to the abyss of depression. Three Houses invites you to dive into his turbulent soundscape: Catharsis and community lie within.

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Three Houses summary

Three Houses is structured as a elongated confessional open mic night where the emcee, the “Big Bad Wolf” (a disarming and versatile Scott Stangland), pressures three attendees to spill their deepest, darkest tales from the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Each story drops this opening template: “During the pandemic when the lockdown hit, I had just separated from my [significant other]."

Susan flees to her grandmother's house in Latvia's birch-woods, Sadie plays video games in her aunt’s desert adobe house in New Mexico, and Beckett sequesters himself in a red brick basement in Brooklyn. Their homes fester into hothouses where they confront insecurities, ancestors, and other ghosts of their past. Ching Valdes-Aran and Henry Stram embody each person's pair of deceased grandparents.

What to expect at Three Houses

When entering the theatre, the cabaret setting evokes the promise of warmth and comfort through the scenic design by dots. The four-piece orchestra is peppered throughout the space, and the light flickers (of Christopher Bowser’s lighting design) feel timed like their own orchestra. Haydee Zelideth's costume design adds personality to each character: the diva-like sparkles of Susan’s gown, Sadie’s flowery getup, and Beckett’s patterned button-up.

Tucked behind the bar is a bucolic painting that swaps out each time the setting changes. (The audience seated directly in front of the stage will have an easier time seeing the painting swaps; the audience on either side, not so much).

Some pop culture and video game references might go over some people's heads, but they illustrate the characters' relationships to the world. James Ortiz’s dynamic puppet designs includes a serpentine paper dragon, a badger stuffie rendered like a Sonic the Hedgehog/Pokémon/Animal Crossing crossbreed, a leathery spider named Shelob (yes, like in Lord of the Rings), and a moneyed wolf head.

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What audiences are saying about Three Houses

As of publication, Three Houses has a 79% audience rating on Show-Score. Members generally described it as “Clever, Great singing, Absorbing, Ambitious, Quirky.”

  • “See it if you like cabaret acts that lean toward the ethereal and intellectual. If you're ready to relive the pandemic.” - Show-Score user Maria 24
  • “dave malloy wrote a musical about my mental health crumbling during the pandemic and I am obsessed with it. go see three houses.” - X user @ashleyhufford
  • "everyone better run to see dave malloy’s three houses at signature theatre because where else can you watch a heart-wrenching musical about loneliness and then run into your ex in the lobby” - X user @pianissimo_pi
  • “I think Three Houses might be my favorite Dave Malloy score. I loved the cast, especially Mia Pak and Margo Seibert who really had me in the palm of their hands, and they took me somewhere else for an hour and a half. And I thought it was beautifully directed!” - My +1 at the show

Read more audience reviews of Three Houses on Show-Score.

Who should see Three Houses

  • Three Houses completes the Numerical Trilogy of collaborations between Dave Malloy and director Annie Tippe, so previous attendees at Ghost Quartet (a song cycle about mortality) and Octet (a chamber choir about internet addiction) will want to ride this one too.
  • The show will interest those intrigued by pandemic-inspired theatre and musicals with intense themes about mental health.
  • Those thirsting for a risk-taking, weird concoction of a musical will find it here.
  • Video game fans will have a riot with gags inspired by The Sims, Animal Crossing, and more.

Learn more about Three Houses off Broadway

The musical evokes the adage “the call is coming from inside the house,” like a palm slapping burning alcohol on a bleeding wound. Loaded with a dynamite ensemble, Three Houses proves to be another nerve-striking, unmissable Dave Malloy musical.

Learn more and get Three Houses tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Three Houses is at the Pershing Square Signature Center through June 9.

Photo credit: Three Houses off Broadway. (Photos by Marc J. Franklin)

Originally published on

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