February House (Public Theater) is a charming, sweet-natured musical, so full of wide-eyed eagerness and ambition that I almost feel guilty at not having liked it very much. The show’s never oppressive: Besides charm, it’s full of talent, so that your time in the theater passes pleasantly. Gabriel Kahane’s inventive music stretches the harmonic range of its show-tune and pop-tune idioms, while his lyrics, at their best, are so skillfully crafted and rhymed that the occasional dud line tends to come as a severe shock. Davis McCallum’s brisk staging keeps the action zipping along at a steady pace.
The trouble is that there isn’t really any action, properly speaking. The crumbling Victorian house at 7 Middagh Street, near the Brooklyn waterfront, baptized “February House” by a friend of the inhabitants, has become a legend because of the brief year and a bit (1940–41) when it was leased by the eccentric writer-editor George Davis (Julian Fleisher), who cluttered it with quaint furniture salvaged from thrift shops, and tenanted it with an even more eccentrically matched clutch of artists: Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh), Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik), and three semi-self-exiled Britishers, Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek), Peter Pears (Ken Barnett), and W.H. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld), plus Auden’s new-found on-again-off-again lover, Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively). Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika (Stephanie Hayes), nominally Auden’s wife, turned up in due course, as did McCullers’s estranged husband, Reeves (Ken Clark)—though he came mainly to retrieve his errant spouse, not to reside.
Yes, the great and the less-than-great artists jingle-jangled about, frequently colliding with one another’s and the house’s shortcomings. No doubt it was all very creative. But nothing happened that doesn’t happen in the normal course of high-temperament artists’ lives, and trying to map the collisions onstage sets up the immediate problem of giving these celebrated folk, some of them highly familiar to us, a believable presence in a dramatic event. At this, February House almost never succeeds. Seth Bockley’s script makes everything cursory; neither music nor staging grants the house itself any atmosphere. Apart from Sieh, with her dour, little-girl dignity, the performers tend to seem like bright-eyed musical-comedy kids, clueless as to these characters’ inner gravitas, which the writing never provides. When a piece of actuality, like Auden’s poem “Stop all the clocks” crops up, it feels like an intrusion. February House‘s heart lies somewhere else, probably nearer Times Square than Middagh Street.