by David A. Rosenberg
“Unbelievable,” said a theatergoer exiting the opening night of “February House.” From her tone of voice, she meant it as a compliment.
The promising yet disappointing new musical at Long Wharf, though based on fact, is dramatically unconvincing. Life, no matter how compelling, needs to be transmuted into art if it’s to reach the heart as well as the head. “What” without “why” is unenlightening.
Produced with New York’s Public Theater, where it opens in May, “February House” is not boring yet lays there for its two-and-a-half hour running time. Substituting familiarity for engagement, it doesn’t probe.
The fascinating facts are there, as detailed in Sherrill Tippins’ book of the same name, the musical’s inspiration. In 1940, poet W. H. Aden, composer Benjamin Britten, author Carson McCullers, ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee and others lived a tempestuous year in a Brooklyn boarding house under the guidance and encouragement of George Davis, recently sacked from his job as a Harper’s Magazine editor.
Alliances were made and broken, alcohol imbibed and work created, amid the mundane concerns of rent, bedbugs, heat and mold. Even great -- or about to be great -- artists have their domestic problems.
From the outline, you’d think this would be an evening rife with passion and excitement, filtered through the role of the arts in society. You’d be wrong. What actually happens on the Long Wharf stage is wrapped in a plot-less book by librettist Seth Bockley, Gabriel Kahane’s music and flavorsome lyrics.
Despite mostly homosexual couplings, the whole thing is more campy than erotic. Although sympathetic to underlying passions, the evening feeds into stereotypical beliefs about effete artistic types flaunting society’s mores. Lacking is thematic connection to how sexuality did or not impinge on their work.
Hey, that might be a theme. Oh, yes, there’s a bit about the war: Auden’s political “Say this city has ten million souls / Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes” is referenced. Yet he’s chastised for not directly participating in the conflict being fought in his native Britain.
But that is peripheral to the personal squabbles that circle about the inhabitants to the point of inertia and indifference. One story revolves around McCullers’ struggles to reconcile returning to her husband with her yearning for Erika Mann (writer Thomas Mann’s daughter and Auden’s marriage-of-convenience Lesbian wife). Another is the fraught relationship between Auden and his young lover, rising poet Chester Kallman. Then there’s Auden’s involvement with Britten and his boyfriend, tenor Peter Pears, in writing a new opera, “Paul Bunyan.”
What’s behind all this, if anything besides lust, is obscure. We’re not invested enough in the characters to care.
Davis McCallum’s direction clarifies the script’s slackness but not its characters. Still, in addition to Erik Lochtefeld’s excellent Auden, A. J. Shively’s Kallman, Ken Clark’s Reeves McCullers, Stephanie Hayes’ Mann and Kacie Sheik’s Gypsy are also admirable. Less so are Julian Fleisher’s Davis, Stanley Bahorek’s Britten and Ken Barnett’s Pears who act like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. As McCullers, Kristen Sieh is mostly indecipherable.
Andy Boroson and Andy Stack work hard at, respectively, piano and guitar. But it will take a lot more sweat and tears to reach, as McCullers wrote, the “thousand illuminations” this material deserves.