Thursday, March 1, 2012

Theater Review: February House -- Long Wharf

Stephanie Hayes, Kristen Sieh and Julian Fleisher. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Art Imitates Life as a Good Idea Doesn't Come to Fruition
By Lauren Yarger
The idea is a good one -- both in real life, where editor George Davis dreams of running a boarding house for artists in Brooklyn, and and in the theater, where book writer Seth Bockley brings the residents' stories to the stage, but a lack of practical planning in both cases fails to bring the ideas to full fruition.

While the real commune didn't work at 7 Middagh St. because of a lack of funds and personal complications among the boarders, February House, playing its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven prior to an Off-Broadway run at the coproducing Public Theater in New York, makes the mistake of trying to be a musical (Gabriel Kahane writes the score and lyrics as well as providing orchestrations).

The characters are interesting enough. Novelist Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh) is working on her second book, edited by best friend Davis, following the success of "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." Composer Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and his partner Peter Pears (Ken Barnett) collaborate on an opera about Paul Bunyon. Meanwhile, poet Wystan Hugh Auden (Erik Lochtefeld)  and his wife of convenience, actress/writer Erika Mann (Stepahnie Hayes), who only married Auden to obtain British citizenship to flee the Nazi regime, also take rooms.

It soon becomes clear that the crumbling Victorian brownstone (represented in skimpy fashion by set designer Riccardo Hernandez by some furniture pieces and a wood molding suspended above the action) serves as much as a safe haven for alternative lifestyle choices in the 1940 USA as it does as a creative retreat. Britten and Pears no longer have to pretend to be brothers living together. Auden lives openly with much younger struggling poet Chester Kallam (A.J. Shively), whom he calls husband, and Mann and McCullers begin a sexual relationship, much to the despair of McCullers' husband, Reeves (Ken Clark), who visits the house often and tries to convince his wife that she isn't herself and needs to return with him to their home in Georgia.

The warmth of utopia wears off, however, and February House's winter setting is felt as creativity and relationships cool  -- the temperature drops literally, when the heating bill isn't paid. In fact, funds to pay for lots of things like the rent, the phone, tuning the piano, bringing out an exterminator to rid the place of bed bugs and most importantly, to purchase a never-ending supply of booze, are dwindling and the "family" turns to father figure Davis to come up with a solution.

He calls on old friend Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik) to lend her striptease talents to some soiree fundraisers. She also pays some bills and takes a room while Davis edits her first novel, "The G-String Murders."

While the story (also told in "February House," a 2005 book by Sherill Tippins on which this musical is based) is interesting, particularly since it doesn't focus on the point of view of just one character, but gives everyone a voice, the unimaginative score is not. Only a couple of songs have a different feel to them. Most sound like a failed attempt to put lines that should be spoken to a few cacophonous notes of music. The battle to turn the work into a musical weakens the characters' ability to develop. Director Davis McCallum is forced to try to make the two competing elements work, with help from choreographer Danny Medford, but the 24 musical numbers in the two-and-a-half-hour show quickly have us asking, "Another song? Seriously?"

Auden, well played by Lochtefeld, seems the most layered as the man trying to avoid involvement with the unfolding war and atrocities in Europe while being tortured by the infidelities of Kallman who misses the faster life of Manhattan. Singing "Funeral Blues," one of Auden's most known and loved poems, however, ruins its effect. The piano seems more dramatic than the intense pain and loss usually conveyed by the speaker of the words. (Post-show conversation among audience members focused on not being able to hear if seated near the piano, played by Music Director Andy Boronson. Andy Stack is the other musician housed stage right in this two-man band.)

Fleisher is very entertaining as a floral-robe-wearing host. He has impeccable delivery, which gives humor us lines a robust quality. His character seems to be caring and concerned about the others, until he delivers a musical line about love being defined by "squeezing the last drop  out of someone" and then sending them on their way. It's confusing.

Britten and Pears are amusingly portrayed, but their song "a Certain Itch" about their bedbug infestation is icky, rather than humorous. Skeik is miscast as Lee and we're never sure how she and Davis became such good friends. Despite the fact that McCullers adopts a more masculine wardrobe to appeal to Mann (costumes designed by Jess Goldstein), it isn't clear how that relationship develops or whether it really is what either of them wants. Sieh's southern accent seems to wander as much as the character's desires.

A good idea that doesn't quite make it.

February House runs at Long wharf's Stage II, 222 Sargent Road, New Haven, through March 18. Tickets are $45 to $65 and are available by calling 203-787-4282 or visiting www.longwharf.orgFebruary House plays the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC May 8 through June 10. Visit

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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