Horror Story of a Life; Plonk and ‘Three Pianos’: Jeremy Gerard

Michele Pawk and Reed Birney in "A Small Fire" in New York, directed by Trip Cullman. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Publicity Office via Bloomberg

Emily Bridges, the unraveling heroine of Adam Bock’s “A Small Fire,” describes her life as a horror story, with “the devil crouching next to me, slowly eating away at me.”

What’s being eaten away is Emily’s senses. First of smell and taste, then sight and, finally, hearing, as her husband and daughter try valiantly to adjust. Emily (the very fine, grumpy Michele Pawk), runs a construction company where her adoring lieutenant, Billy, takes over in the wake of her absence and growing helplessness.

That’s a compelling plot for a play. “Next to Normal” comes to mind, as does “Wings,” both more fully conceived works about what happens when the faculties fail as the mind struggles to endure.

Bock starts off with a long scene at a construction site that takes us far afield from the story (while the sounds of jack hammers make it difficult to hear). By the time we get the first inkling of Emily’s malady -- she doesn’t smell a small fire in her kitchen that might have been catastrophic -- I felt jangled and disengaged. That might have been the point of Trip Cullman’s halting production at Playwrights Horizons, but the effect is alienating.

This sensibility is also underscored by Loy Arcenas’s dry-wall set, which looks deliberately unfinished and is just plain ugly.

Through Jan. 23 at 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.playwrightshorizons.org Rating: *

‘Three Pianos’

New York Theater Workshop has extended “Three Pianos,” and you shouldn’t miss this slight, slacker-style charmer.

There are indeed three pianos -- uprights that musicians Dave Molloy, Rick Burkhardt and Alec Duffy move around the stage and often play, sometimes separately, sometimes in unison.

Their subject is Franz Schubert’s 1827 lieder cycle “Winterreise,” a setting of 24 moony, moody poems by Wilhelm Muller, which they ponder with jaunty collegiate humor, under Rachel Chavkin’s seemingly invisible direction.

It’s way too long, but there’s free plonk passed around the audience, along with occasional sparks of insight and some fine playing.

Through Jan 16 at 79 E. 4th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com

Rating: ** 1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Average
*           Below Par
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is a theater critic and editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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