Besides Auden and McCullers, less drama than you’d expect from the drama queens of ‘February House’
True story: In 1934, 17-year-old Carson McCullers took a steamer to New York City, intent on studying music at Juilliard.
After losing her tuition money she was forced to scrape together a living doing menial jobs, giving up her dream of being a pianist.
Just shy of 45 years after her death, the author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is finally taking a much-deserved bow in February House, a new musical about the brief period around 1940 during which McCullers, poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten, and several other writers, performers and hangers-on formed a loosely organized art commune in a run-down brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.
McCullers doesn't play a note in February House, or even wander anywhere near the grand piano that dominates the Public Theater's stage (that's Britten's domain, of course), but composer and lyricist Gabriel Kahane has written her a series of songs that reveal, bit by bit, her inability to truly feel at home anywhere in the world. A song like "Coney Island" makes it painfully clear how disconnected she feels from the people around her.
Kahane's music for McCullers is elegant and spare, using elements of bluegrass and folk to convey both the writer's Southern heritage and melancholy nature. And in Kristen Sieh, he's teamed up with the perfect interpreter for the character. Her voice is haunting, especially in the lower register, and has a slight rough-around-the-edges quality suggesting too much liquor and too many sleepless nights.
McCullers is by far the most compelling character in February House, thanks in equal measure to Kahane's music, Sieh's performance and Davis McCallum's sensitive direction. But Kahane can't seem to find such a compelling voice for the other characters. When Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and his lover Peter Pears (Ken Barnette) are accompanied by the same jangly banjo that sounds perfect for McCullers, the effect is jarring. And to give them Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter songs just because they're British seems a bit too on the nose.
Kahane does a better job with Auden (Erik Lochtefeld), who moves into the house with his much younger lover, Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively). The wistful ballad "Awkward Angel" sums up Auden's feelings for the boy, although perhaps not better than the dialog in the previous scene.
Several times during the show Kahane musicalizes Auden's poetry, and the result is a mixed bag. His setting of "Funeral Blues" is mostly successful as a cry of anguish for the love-struck Auden, although Auden's famous line calling to "silence the pianos" comes just as the pianist in the onstage band is pounding away on the keyboard. The setting of "Refugee Blues" seems merely bombastic. And moving back and forth between Kahane's lyrics and Auden's poetry makes Kahane's occasional stiff phrases and not-quite rhymes all the more apparent.
The scenes with McCullers give off a lot of heat, whether she's arguing with her abusive ex-husband Reeves (Ken Clark) or daydreaming with her lover Erika (Stephanie Hayes). But otherwise the play finds very little drama in a house full of drama queens. A 2005 book about the commune by Sherill Tippins reveals that it was a hotbed of creativity, as well as bed-hopping, but there's very little of this in the play. Surely these artists who had already or would soon reach the heights of their careers found each other inspiring, or at least infuriating? Instead, a good deal of time is spent singing about an outbreak of bedbugs and other mundanities of communal life as the cast moves in and out of the building.
It was probably inevitable that Seth Bockley's mostly by-the-numbers book had to eliminate some of the famous people who resided for a time at 7 Middagh Street, but why cut Paul and Jane Bowles? They would certainly have added some fireworks. And where is Richard Wright, who at the time was getting rave reviews for Native Son? He found the others insufferable, which would have made a nice counterpoint, and made the whole enterprise a little less worshipful.
One resident who receives too much attention is stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Shiek), who spent time in the house while writing a pulpy mystery novel called The G-String Murders. Her first appearance, during which she all-too-predictably shimmies out of her evening gown, is a dud. It doesn't help that her number, "A Little Brain," isn't half as clever as the songs it seems to crib from, including "A Little Brains, A Little Talent" from Damn Yankees and "Zip!" from Pal Joey. That this is her only song underscores how unnecessary she is to the story.
The weakest link in the show is the central character of novelist and literary editor George Davis, who today is best remembered for bringing together the denizens of the February House. In real life he was a charismatic figure whose circle included Anaïs Nin (who gave the house its name because so many tenants were born in February) and Truman Capote (who satirized him in Answered Prayers). In the play Davis more closely resembles an absentee landlord, always missing when the furnace breaks or the phone has been disconnected. Julian Fleisher works hard, but the actor isn't able to make a credible character out of what he's been given.
George does have one particularly lovely moment in the show, and it's no surprise that it's a duet with McCullers called "Goodnight to the Boarding House." Their friendship suddenly feels deep and genuine, and you realize why they would want to live under the same roof.
February House is playing at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, through June 10. Tickets start at $80, and are available at 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org.