THE NEW MUSICAL AT THE PUBLIC THEATER SHINES A SPOTLIGHT ON A 1940'S COMMUNE OF WORLD CLASS ARTISTS
BY HENRY EDWARDS
“February House,” the inaugural production of The Public Theater’s Musical Theater Initiative, currently running at The Public’s Martinson Theater, sets to music one of the most unlikely and tantalizing stories in American literary history.
The focal point of this tale was a sensitive, brilliant and witty 34-year-old magazine editor and one-time novelist whose name was George Davis.
In late summer 1940, after coming across a three-storey Brooklyn Heights brownstone, Davis, the kingpin of an intense 1940's literary circle, invited two close friends, none other than Carson McCullers and W.H. Auden, to join him in renting the house. The editor conceived of the dwelling as a residence that would house creative people exclusively; unless the potential tenant was working in the arts, he or she could not live there.
Following after McCullers and Auden and the poet's 19-year-old lover Chester Kallman, another Davis friend, the fabled striptease and burlesque entertainer, Gypsy Rose Lee, became the next member of the live-in salon; Lee planned to write a novel, "The G-String Murders" (which Davis would really author).
At one time or another, Marc Blitzstein, Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles, Christopher Isherwood and Richard Wright lived at February House, given its name by yet another Davis buddy, Anaïs Nin, who chose it because so many of the inhabitants had birthdays in February.
Two themes seemed to dominate the enterprise. February House proved to be an artistic haven in which a collection of great talents produced serious work. At the same time, in true bohemian fashion, it was home to an ongoing game of musical beds punctuated by late-night whispers, shutting doors, creaking bedsprings and serial intrigues.
As in the real life, the musical, composed by Gabriel Kahane with a book by Seth Bockley, casts George Davis (Julian Fleisher) as the ringmaster of this experiment in the social engineering of the creative impulse.
Davis's onstage roommates include McCullers (Kristen Sieh); Auden (Erik Lochtefeld) and Kallman (A. J. Shively); Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and Britten's lover Peter Pears (Ken Barnett); and Lee (Kacie Sheik); along with Auden’s wife, Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), a lesbian and the daughter of none other than Thomas Mann.
Mann is a composite of the real Erika Mann, her brother Klaus, and their friend Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach. In the musical Erika becomes Carson McCullers's lover, a role Clarac-Schwarzenbach played in real life.
The authors had their work cut out for them when they set out to create a musical that required them to put dialogue and song into the mouths of a group of legendary artists that did not trivialize them.
While these characters have not been trivilized, writer Bockley seems to have gone out of his way to omit dramatic conflict from their story, resulting in a muted, essentially plotless chamber musical in which the purportedly fascinating assemblage often does not seem all at that interesting and occasionally seems really dull.
The first act mainly concerns the individual arrivals of the guests, while the second allows for some drama as it deals with whether one stays or leaves the communal living situation, the emotional relationships between some of the characters and the heartbreaking effects living through a World War had on some of them.
In the show, George Davis serves mainly as den mother. However, the real George Davis was known as kind, warm and loveable. He was also a great friend and confidante with a deep respect for the arts and a keen appreciation of talent. Davis, often on the verge of success, was also riddled with self-hatred and guilt. A practicing masochist, he paid sailors and male hustlers to beat him mercilessly.
Undoubtedly, the other characters shared Davis's complexity. Yet the musical lacks any of these shadings and suffers for it.
It's been said some of the best work being created in America came out of February House. But the passion—creative and sexual—does not permeate the musical.
Ultimately, “February House” turns out to be a mood piece, and by the time it’s over, it’s mostly a picture of a failed attempt to create an ersatz family that is moody enough to exert an emotional pull on the audience.
Kahane's music, part art song, part artsy folk, is really interesting, and deserves to be heard again. The composer has attempted to create an individual, yet minimalist sound for each of the characters, and when it works (McCullers's bluegrass sound) it is effective, and when it doesn't (Britten and Pears as Gilbert and Sullivan prototypes), it falls flat.
Nor does setting Auden’s poems to music seem like the best idea since Auden’s verse is so much more powerful, evocative and profound than Kahane's lyrical efforts. Perhaps, in the long run, the writers would have been better off imagining the show as a staged song cycle with an entire score composed of contemporary art songs in a multitude of variations.
Davis McCallum’s directorial choices pay little attention to time and place which seem to be of importance in a period piece.
“February House” is staged on Riccardo Hernandez’s minimal, barebones, cost efficient set, and the design tells us nothing about the originality of the inhabitants. Did they decorate their rooms in individual styles? What did their communal home really look like? Or did décor mean absolutely nothing to them?
McCallum misses the opportunity to provide visual information to those questions and others like them, and it’s indicative of the generic nature of the entire piece.
Lots of time and effort have gone into the making of this chancy, daring, unconventional show. And yet as often is in the case with world premieres, the production reveals there is lots more work to be done.
“February House” held its first preview on May 8 and opened officially on May 22. It was scheduled to run through June 10, but the run has been extended to June 17 (www.publictheater.org).
The Public Theater’s Musical Theater Initiative is devoted to the expansion and development of new works for the American musical theatre.