05/23/2012 03:31 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Stage Door: February House

In 1940, a rooming house in Brooklyn Heights housed some of the more intriguing artistic figures of the last century, including Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, W. H. Auden and a brief, but memorable appearance by Gypsy Rose Lee.

Led by a high-camp ringleader, former Harper's Bazaar fiction editor George Davis (Julian Fleisher), the "February House," named because many residents were born in February, tried to create, amid cold rooms, bed bugs and clashing egos, a world unto itself.

Now at the Public Theater, February House, a discordant musical by Gabriel Kahane and book by Seth Bockley, hopes to capture the uniqueness of that pre-war sensation. In fact, several songs are set to Auden's poems. Casual sex and cocaine use are thrown in to emphasize the tenants' break with traditional values; Auden even declares he and his young lover, poet Chester Kallman, (A. J. Shively) are married. Sadly, it all seems more forced than revelatory.

The music -- often sung in a spoken-voice style -- is interesting and sometimes moving, but less successful as a totality. Only a few numbers really click, such as the opener, a paean to Brooklyn, and another about Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and his partner/lover Peter Pears (Ken Barnett) going to California. It's upbeat, a traditional song that departs from the musical's overall tone.

While there are some provocative issues raised, such as Britten's pacifism and Auden's refusal to take a political stand on the war, they exist on the surface. February House's tenants are whiny, introspective, narcissistic and, for the most part, unengaging. The one exception is Carson McCullers, whose Southern style is nicely captured by Kristen Sieh; similarly, Kacie Shiek treats audiences to an entertaining Gypsy Rose Lee, at one point a psuedo-strip tease is neatly staged.

The trials and tribulations, both artistic and personal, of this singular crew would make a compelling story. However, the characters are drawn in brushstrokes; there isn't enough at stake. While ably attempted, February House, with a stronger narrative, would probably work as a straight play.