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February House

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

February House
Julian Fleisher and Kristen Sieh
Photo by Joan Marcus

The delicate aroma of bourbon emanates from every pore of February House. Every whiff of this new musical by Seth Bockley and Gabriel Kahane at The Public Theater speaks to the grace, refinement, and elegance of a bygone age and people: not just the collection of disparate mid-20th-century literary lights at its center, who improbably congregated in a Brooklyn Heights commune, but the rest of the world as well, trapped in a devastating war and facing an uncertain future. Alas, the smell of alcohol is not enough to get you tipsy, let alone drunk, and you may resent discovering that, with this show, there are only vapors to be had.

February House, despite its handsome intellectual intentions and obvious stiff-collar appeal, is virulently empty, never exploring an avenue of theatricality it can instead stumble past. Kahane, Bockley, director Davis McCallum, and The Public (which is coproducing the show with Long Wharf Theatre, where it premiered in March) are apparently operating under the impression that the mere real-world facts they've accumulated justify a full-length evening (well over two and a half hours). But even if you adore every single person they depict, enduring this much concentrated non-action is not easy. Neither is staying awake.

This shouldn't be the case. Kahane and Bockley drew their inspiration from Sherill Tippin's same-titled 2005 exposé of the lives, loves, and twisted interactions within the home at 7 Middagh Street in the early 1940s. Established by editor George Davis, the residence was a focal point for such idiosyncratic talents as (among others) poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and his tenor-partner Peter Pears, novelist Carson McCullers, and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (who, at that point, was trying to wrap up her novel, The G-String Murders). Personalities this vivid and diverse would seem to cry out for a musical treatment that simultaneously embraces the velvety toxicity of it all and serves as a broader critique of the group's contributions to its culture as well as our own (much as was done in Grand Hotel in 1989 or The Public's own The Wild Party in 2000).

Unfortunately, neither Bockley nor Kahane has made that connection, and as a result this potentially fascinating study becomes a parade of nonspecific clichés. Bockley's book defines only Davis, and only as a generic gay bon vivant more concerned with furthering art than paying bills. The other characters — who include McCullers's husband Reeves, reactionary Erika Mann, and poet (and Auden's lover) Chester Kallman — are skeletal constructs that exist more to fulfill specific dramatic purposes (one is for the war, one is against it, this one hates that other one, and so on) than to contribute to the distinct texture of the work as a whole.

February House
Stanley Bahorek, Ken Barnett, A.J. Shively, Stephanie Hayes, Erik Lochtefeld, and Kristen Sieh .
Photo by Joan Marcus

When the group congregates in the dwelling's living room (the stately, but sedate, set design is by Riccardo Hernandez), it's as if you're seeing a made-for-American Lit class screenplay come to life, absent the color and originality that characterized these people's artistic creations. The closest thing to recognizable conflict is an all-too-brief dinner-table debate in Act II; otherwise, so much of the angst is internal, and barely verbalized, that you must take their rage and heartbreak on faith — which is difficult to do with one character, let alone the nine that require that here.

Only slightly less troublesome is Kahane's score. Although it's often attractive, encompassing a number of generally period-hugging styles from piano bar and torch to blues and burlesque, it captures the scattered uniqueness of its composer far more than it does that of any of his subjects. Kahane is best known for his pop albums and his song cycles (Craigslistlieder, Crane Palimpsest) and that background bleeds through profusely here: The songs rarely relate directly to the characters who sing them, often ringing as isolated amusements that convey little useful information.

Britten and Pears, for example, sing a mock-operatic duet about bedbugs for no reason I could discern. Lee's big solo, "A Little Brain," is such an intense homage to Rodgers and Hart's "Zip" (from Pal Joey) that it borders on photocopying. There's a particularly extraneous sun-drenched ditty about the West Coast called "California." And two major solos, and a third significant ensemble number, are little more than settings of Auden poems that stand out as much for their haunting sound as they do their art-song inappropriateness. With the exception of Davis's transitional interior-decorating ditty "A Room Comes Together," the song stack is bereft of fun and spark, consistently more concerned with stuffed-shirt navel-gazing than stage-worthy storytelling.

McCallum's indifferent direction fits right in, fostering a festering mood that is no replacement for dramatic content. If its listless nature is excellent at highlighting everyone's disconnection, it puts you at nearly as much of a remove: Actors are frequently shoved far upstage, behind other set pieces, or appear to meander on their own, in what is likely intended as either a representation of their burgeoning artistic freedom or an uncertainty about the best way to derive energy from the lazing material. Jess Goldstein's costumes and Mark Barton's lights are effective (if unremarkable) in their limited capacities.

The best performances come, surprisingly, from the actors in the smallest roles: Ken Clark is gently magnetic as the patriotic but nastily insistent Reeves, and A.J. Shively brings genuine confliction and warmth to the ostensibly disposable boy-toy Chester. Stanley Bahorek and Ken Barnett have some chemistry as Britten and Pears, but play intractable caricatures of mushily written men; Stephanie Hayes and Erik Lochtefeld strike the proper basic notes as Mann and Auden, but do so without verve; and Kacie Sheik and Kristen Sieh have mastered one note each as Lee and McCullers.

Julian Fleisher is especially unlikeable in the lead role of Davis, although it's a fine mating of actor and character: Both are too low-key to anchor a musical. What they need, and what February House needs, is more opportunities to let go, and demonstrate what all of this should add up to. The writers assume you're already sympathetic with these struggling souls, but that doesn't absolve them of their responsibility to make their story come alive — a responsibility they've almost entirely abjured. All you need to know about Davis is contained in his signature housekeeping number, sung to close both acts: "Goodnight to the Boardinghouse." Though pointless and pedantic, it's also beautiful enough to make you wish the boardinghouse had woken up in the first place.


February House
Through June 10
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current schedule: publictheater.org